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The 13 Most Impressive Performances From 1978's Rock ‘N Roll Sports Classic

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In 1978, the Associated Press awarded their Male Athlete of the Year Award to New York Yankees pitcher Ron Guidry while golfer Nancy Lopez took the Female Athlete of the Year honors. With all due respect to Mr. Guidry and Ms. Lopez, the AP made a terrible choice. 1978's most talented athletes were, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Kenny Loggins and The Runaways' Sandy West.

Don't believe me? Feast your eyes on the Rock ‘N Roll Sports Classic, a primetime ABC special that pitted the music world's biggest stars against one another in a series of loosely organized athletic events:

The special, which aired on May 3rd, ushered in sweeps season and featured a bevy of big name stars. Oh, it truly was a bevy. Check out the participants, whose names I've written in bold because such a bevy deserves bold:

Boston, The Commodores, ELO, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Jacksons, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Runaways, Seals & Crofts, Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr., Rod Stewart, The Runaways, Kenny Loggins, Tanya Tucker, and Leif Garrett.

Also, Sha Na Na was invited for some reason.

You really should watch the full clip above, but if for some reason you can't take an hour and fifteen minutes out of your day to watch Leif Garrett run hurdles, I've broken down the most noteworthy performances.

13. Kenny Loggins—Men's 50 Yard Freestyle Swim

The thing that impressed me most about Kenny Loggins was the focus he brought to the games. This man was clearly in the zone. Could you say he was in the "danger zone?" Yes you could. You could say that Kenny Loggins was in the danger zone.

He'd need that focus because look at his competition:

ELO's Hugh McDowell pushed Loggins to the limit, but Loggins was not to be denied.

When asked about his preparation, Loggins told Susan Anton after the race, "Actually I did about 80 laps for two weeks."

Kenny Loggins trained for the Rock ‘N Roll Sports Classic.

12. Joan Jett—Women's Cycling Race (Unspecified Distance)

Holy crap look how cool Joan Jett is. If your kids ever tell you they don't want to wear a bike helmet, show them this Joan Jett bicycle race and they'll never take it off.

Jett gives Tanya Tucker a pretty nice cushion before passing her on the last straight with ease on a very wet and tricky track. Tanya Tucker had no idea what hit her.

11. Jackie Jackson—Men's 100 Yard Dash

Jackson creams everyone in this sprint, including his brother Michael.

(“I don’t play that many sports,” Michael says later in an interview. “He’s not in shape. He hasn’t been eating enough eggs,” says Jackie.)

10. Marlon Jackson—Team Long Jump

Marlon Jackson wows the crowd and wins their hearts with a long jump of just over 15 feet, narrowly beating...

Kenny Loggins! Fly Kenny, you magnificent bearded falcon, FLY!

9. Bubba Knight—Speed Walking Walkathon

Bubba Knight—older brother of Gladys and a member of the Pips—won the speed walking event.

Coming in last was Sha Na Na's Lennie Baker, who didn't fare too well:

8. Sandy West—Women's 60 Yard Dash

Like her Runaways bandmate Joan Jett, Sandy West is cool as all get-out.

She absolutely toasts the competition in the 60 yard dash, barely even breaking a sweat.

That trophy (designed by Cartier) was awarded to each event's winner. Host Alex Karras repeatedly mentions that the contestants weren't playing for money—only trophies. He says this so frequently that it actually raises suspicion. The trophies are nice, though.

7. Sandy West—Women's 100 Yard Dash

Sandy narrowly edges Joan Jett in the 100-yard dash. I have no doubt in my mind that The Runaways were the world's best athletic team in 1978.

6. Fran Sheehan—Overall Attitude

Boston bassist Fran Sheehan wasn't the most competitive or athletic of all the participants, but his head certainly was in the right place.

In an interview that sticks out as the most sincere moment of the entire broadcast, Sheehan reminds Barbi Benton and the viewers at home what this really was all about: “I like sports a lot. I think sports and music go hand-in-hand, because, um, sports usually are a team effort and music is a team effort as well. No one individual can sound really well unless he has people who want to and can accompany that person and make him sound better.”

Truer words were never spoken.

5. Rod Stewart—Soccer

Before starting his career in music, Rod Stewart had a trial run at Brentford FC, a professional soccer club. For the soccer event, he has a one on one penalty shootout against ELO keyboardist Rich Tandy.

“He’s gonna get really beat, this kid. He can’t play football,” Rod Stewart told Ed McMahon. He was right.

McMahon, meanwhile, screams, "No ties…KICK THE BALL!"

The sport of the future, indeed.

4. Kenny Loggins—Basketball

At first glance, Kenny Loggins is terrible at basketball. He can't dribble, can't shoot, and doesn't have any court awareness. But then you see his hustle, his defense, and his rebounding, and you realize that Kenny Loggins might be the greatest basketball player in history. Here he takes a foul shot, because Kenny Loggins isn't afraid to mix it up down low and draw contact:

3. Tanya Tucker, Ron La Pread, Ralph Johnson, and Kenny Loggins—Swimming Relay

Do you think Earth, Wind & Fire's Ralph Johnson was worried that Kenny Loggins was going to be too tired for this relay race after his tremendous and winning effort in the 50 yard freestyle swim? Probably not, considering Kenny Loggins did 80 laps for two weeks to train for this very moment.

They won easily thanks to a gutsy performance by anchor Tanya Tucker (shown below with Phyllis Diller, Sandy Duncan, Susan Anton, and a Cartier-designed trophy).

2. Rod Stewart and The Commodores—Men's Endurance Relay

Look at Lionel Richie's face. That smile says it all. The Commodores and Rod Stewart made a great team; would've been neat to hear them perform together. But, alas, they were busy running hurdles because the Rock ‘N Roll Sports Classic is first and foremost about sports.

1. Sandy West—Co-Ed 50 Yard Freestyle Swim

Susan Anton: “What’d you do to train for this?”
Sandy West: “Nothin’.”

Sandy West was the coolest. (Kenny Loggins did 80 laps for two weeks to train for this, FYI.)

[Video link via]

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technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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