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Twitter, @Ky1eLong

11 Times Athletes Did Awesome Things

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Twitter, @Ky1eLong

The sports pages are littered with stories about athletes behaving badly. ESPN's headlines often read like a police blotter. But there are lots of heartwarming tales, too. To help you feel better about your fandom, here are 11 instances of athletes being awesome.

1. Kyle Long

When his son's experience with bullies got so bad that even switching schools didn't help, Frank Oyston tried an unconventional approach—he reached out to Kyle Long of the Chicago Bears on Twitter. The Pro Bowl guard has an active social media presence, but it still probably came as a surprise to Oyston when Long immediately replied with an offer to ride the bus with 9-year-old Andrew. That proved to be not logistically feasible (and probably a little illegal) but just a few days ago, Long went to Andrew's little sister's birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese to spend some time with the family.

"Initially I just saw a dad that was in a tough spot with a kid that was obviously going through some things," Long told ESPNChicago.com. "As somebody that didn't have the best elementary and middle school experience, I can relate a lot to what Andrew is going through."

2. Matt Kemp

Last season, Joshua Jones' friends and family pooled their money to get the 19-year-old brain cancer patient front row seats to a Giants-Dodgers game. During the game, his father struck up a conversation with Dodgers third base coach Tim Wallach and explained the nature of their trip. Wallach relayed their story to Joshua's favorite player, Matt Kemp, who decided the family deserved more than to see a Dodgers' loss. As soon as the game ended, Kemp—who made the last out—jogged right over to Joshua and began handing him souvenirs: a signed ball, his jersey, hat, and even cleats.

A video of the encounter went viral, and later in the season Kemp even flew Joshua to L.A. for another game.

3. Chris Seitz

In 2008, MLS goalie Chris Seitz—along with the rest of his then teammates at Real Salt Lake—registered to become bone marrow donors as a show of solidarity for his teammate Andy Williams' wife, Marcia, who was battling leukemia. Four years later, while playing for FC Dallas, Seitz got an email—he was a match for a dying patient. Would he be willing to donate bone marrow?

The 25-year-old talked to team officials and doctors about the procedure. It was an invasive surgery, requiring doctors to poke two holes in his lower back, then fish 32 needles through each of those holes to remove fresh marrow from the core of Seitz's bones. Recovery typically isn't too arduous, but no one knew for sure how it would impact Seitz's athletic career, which often requires him to fall on the very bones that would be affected.

Seitz opted to go through with the procedure, even though he ended up missing the rest of the soccer season.

4. Adreian Payne

Adreian Payne was one of several Spartans who visited 8-year-old Lacey Holsworth in the hospital while she was battling cancer, but he developed a particularly close friendship with the third grader. The Michigan State basketball player called her his "sister," and brought her on the court during senior day and the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis. She came with him to the end-of-year banquet and cheered him on in the Slam Dunk contest. Even when Lacey couldn't make it to the games, the two texted daily.

Three days after Lacey succumbed to the neuroblastoma, Payne attended the John R. Wooden Award gala where he was awarded the first Outreach Award. "She wouldn't want me to be sad," Payne said during his acceptance speech. "It's hard."

5. Roger Federer

Through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, 18-year-old Beatriz Tinoco—who had survived battles with cancer in 2011 and 2012—was able to meet Roger Federer last year. But the tennis great made sure that she got more than just a meet-and-greet. Beatriz and her family were flown to London for Wimbledon, where she got not only autographs and pictures but a tour of facility (led by Federer and the Chairman of Wimbledon) and a chance to play tennis with the seven-time tournament champion. You can read her own, exclamation point-filled account of the trip here.

6. LaMarr Woodley

When the Steelers linebacker learned that the Saginaw Public Schools in his Michigan hometown were charging a $75 fee for students to participate in sports, he reached out with an amazing offer. Because of the fees—which were designed to make up for budget cuts to the athletic department—the school reported decreased participation in sports. But to ensure the costs wouldn't fall on the kids and their families, Woodley donated $60,000 to cover every student-athlete in the district.

“Because of this, kids will have an opportunity to participate, an opportunity to be part of a team. People don’t understand how important that is," said Saginaw High athletic director Dan Szatkowski.

7. Josh Zuchowski

"I have looked up to you since I was seven," Josh Zuchowski wrote in a letter to his friend and rival, Reese Branzell. Of course, the two competitive swimmers are just nine and 10 years old, respectively, but it's still touching.

The occasion for the praise came last December, when Josh noticed Reese missing from a meet. The older boy had been hospitalized since November with a hip infection that left him unable to compete. Josh told his parents that if he won that day, he would send his trophy to Reese—and went on to do just that. "I would rather get second with you at the meet, then win with you absent," the note said.

8. Christine Michael

Winning the Super Bowl has led to lots of invitations to exclusive events for the Seattle Seahawks. Among such events: high school proms.

Running back Christine Michael accepted an invitation just a few weeks ago to go to Anahuac High's prom at the end of the school year. His date will be 18-year-old Taylor Kirkwood, who is autistic and recently underwent surgery to treat scoliosis. Holmes' cousin attended high school with Michael and was able to relay the invite. 

9. Victor Cruz

Twitter, Victor Cruz

Six-year-old Jack Pinto was among the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012. After the tragedy, news broke that the Giants fan would be buried in his Victor Cruz jersey. Just two days after the shooting, Cruz appeared on the field with "R.I.P. JACK PINTO" written on one cleat, "My Hero" on the other, and Jack's name on one of his gloves, above the inscription "This one is 4 U!"

After the game those items were given to Jack's family, and Cruz called to offer his condolences. A few days later, Cruz drove up to Sandy Hook to spend time with Jack's friends and family, listen to them reminisce and play Madden with the younger kids.

10. Bryce Harper

The Nationals first learned about Gavin Rupp after the young cancer patient participated in a baseball tournament put on by Kyle's Kamp, a foundation that raises money to support Children’s National for pediatric cancer research. When doctors told Gavin's family that they had found another tumor and it was time to move Gavin to hospice care, the Nationals decided to do something special. Last year, the then-13-year-old was invited to throw out the first pitch—but before the game, his favorite player made an extra effort to get to know Gavin. Bryce Harper spent over an hour talking with the Rupps before catching Gavin's ceremonial pitch.

11. Todd Frazier

In 2012, Ted Kremer—a 29-year-old with Down syndrome—won a silent auction to be the Cincinnati Reds' honorary bat boy for one day. He had such a positive effect on the dugout that the team invited him back for another game the following year.

That day, Kremer had two requests: 11 strikeouts to capitalize on a local pizzeria promotion for free pies, and a home run by third baseman Todd Frazier. The Reds delivered on both counts.

“He’s so funny, he said, ‘C’mon, hit me a home run, I love you.’ I said, ‘I love you too, I’ll hit you one,’” Frazier said in a postgame interview after the Reds' victory.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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