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The History of the Olympics, According to Wheaties Boxes

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Life cereal may have cornered the market on cute with Little Mikey, but Wheaties has got serious game. For 80 years, the brand has been backing up its reputation as “The Breakfast of Champions” by featuring more than 500 athletes on its box (not all of them on the front). The tradition has been a cherished one amongst Olympic athletes in particular, whose front-and-center presence on a cardboard box full of wheat and bran flakes seems to be as nearly coveted as the gold medal itself. Here’s a brief history of the Olympics, as told by Wheaties boxes.

1. BABE DIDRIKSON (1935)

In 1935, Babe Didrikson—who gold medaled in hurdles and the javelin throw at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles—became the first female athlete to appear on a box of Wheaties (albeit on the back).

2. JESSE OWENS (1936)

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Track and field star James “Jesse” Owens, who wowed the crowds by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, was the first black athlete to appear on the cereal box. He made a second appearance in 2003.

3. BOB RICHARDS (1958)

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In 1958, two-time Olympic pole vaulting champion (he took home the gold in 1952 and 1956) was the first athlete to make the front of a Wheaties box. But Richards was more than just a familiar mug used to generate sales. In 1956, he was chosen from more than 500 other athletes to serve as the cereal’s spokesperson, a role he continued through 1970. “I saw it more as a mission than a job,” Richards told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “What we did was vastly more important than making money … Now guys like [Michael] Jordan go on and say, ‘You'd better eat your Wheaties,’ but we went around the country talking to people.”

4. BRUCE JENNER (1977)

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Before he was an unofficial member of the Kardashian clan, Bruce Jenner actually achieved something: a gold medal in the Decathlon at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, which turned him into a pretty major celebrity in the 1980s. So much so that he actually replaced Erik Estrada on CHiPs. (Which was a like totally big deal at the time.)

5. MARY LOU RETTON (1984)

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Thirty years ago, gymnast Mary Lou Retton won five medals at the Summer Olympics, which she followed up with yet another impressive achievement when she became the first female athlete to be featured on the front of a Wheaties box. Her beloved mug showed up again in 1999 and 2012.

6. MICHAEL JORDAN (1988)

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Michael Jordan was already an NBA superstar—and gold medalist (as part of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games)—by the time he made his first Wheaties appearance, in 1988. He would go on to win yet another gold medal in 1992, at the Barcelona Olympics, where he was the only player to start in all eight games. He would also set a record for Wheaties’ favorite cover boy: 18 appearances (and counting).

7. U.S. WOMEN'S OLYMPIC GYMNASTICS TEAM (1996)

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Kerri Strug, Shannon Miller, Amanda Borden, Dominique Moceanu, and Jaycie Phelps were among the young women who made history in 1996 when they became the first American team to win a gold medal in gymnastics, beating out the heavily favored teams from Russia and Romania. Wheaties paid tribute to their victory.

8. JIM THORPE (2001)

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It took long enough! Eighty-nine years after he won both the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm (wearing two different shoes he’d rescued from a garbage can after his own kicks were stolen), Jim Thorpe finally made his way to the front of a Wheaties box. Perhaps the delayed accolade was due to the fact that his medals were revoked in 1913, when it was discovered that he had played semi-professional baseball before the Games (a no-no at the time, as only amateurs were allowed to compete). In 1983, 30 years after his passing, the International Olympic Committee decided to restore his titles. Too bad he wasn’t around to savor it!

9. JUSTIN GATLIN (2004)

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Two years after winning a gold medal (plus two silvers and one bronze) in Athens in 2004, sprinter Justin Gatlin was hit with a four-year ban on competing after testing positive for steroids. In 2010, he re-emerged, and added yet another bronze medal to his collection at the 2012 London Games.

10. MICHAEL PHELPS (2004)

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In 2004, Michael Phelps—the most successful Olympian of all time, with a total of 22 medals—made his first of two Wheaties box appearances. The second one came in 2012, the same year he retired. He was 27 years old. (Time to start practicing that breaststroke, kids.)

11. LINDSEY VONN (2010)

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America’s most decorated skier won the gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics. She’s in Sochi this year, too, but as a correspondent for NBC News.

12. SHAUN WHITE (2010)

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A key figure in the transition of snowboarding from daredevil spectacle to Olympic sport, Shaun White won his first gold medal at the 2006 Games in Turin and did it again in Vancouver in 2010.

13. MISTY MAY-TREANOR (2012)

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Now retired, Misty May-Treanor is the world’s most successful beach volleyball player, having collected more than 100 championships throughout her career, not to mention the three gold medals she spiked in three consecutive Olympic Games (in 2004 in Athens, 2008 in Beijing, and 2012 in London).

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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