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Meet the 10 Honorary Harlem Globetrotters

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The legendary Harlem Globetrotters played their first game 90 years ago today, on January 7, 1927. In the near-century since, a select few people have been named “honorary Globetrotters.” While there are athletes on the list, most of them aren't exactly people who can handle a basketball like Meadowlark Lemon.


In 1976, Henry Kissinger was deemed the first-ever member of the honorary roster. “I’m not too good at the fast break, but I’m strong on defense, and despite my height, I’m a pretty good rebounder,” Kissinger said. “It is an honor to be associated with a group whose won-and-lost record was certainly better than my own. My only worry is how I will look in short pants.”


Hope was named an honorary Globetrotter in 1977, receiving jersey number 1. It’s no surprise that the legendary comedian’s acceptance letter was full of jokes:

“To be perfectly frank, I deserve to be a Globetrotter ... In fact, I was recently given an award for completing my first million miles, and that was just to and from airports. The Trotters are famed for making baskets. I’ve been making baskets myself lately, and if the psychiatrists let me out for an hour, I’ll be there for your presentation.”


The Globetrotters offered Abdul-Jabbar a reported $1 million to play basketball for them back in 1969, but he declined and went on to become the first pick in the NBA draft that year. They eventually added him to the lineup as an honorary member in 1989.


Comedian and actress Whoopi Goldberg also joined the team in 1989.


In 1996, the Globetrotters made history when they became the first professional basketball team to play in a free democratic South Africa. They also hosted clinics, made school and hospital visits, and honored President Nelson Mandela with his own number.


Track and field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee became the sixth member of the honorary squad in 1999. Though she’s known for her prowess around the track, Joyner-Kersee could hold her own if the Globetrotters ever asked her to jump in on the court: She briefly played for the Richmond Rage in the women’s American Basketball League.


Pope John Paul II made the cut in 2000, receiving jersey number 75 in honor of the Globetrotters’ 75th anniversary.


The civil rights activist famously stood up for the Globetrotters when they were criticized for portraying African-Americans as buffoonish. “I think they’ve been a positive influence,” Jackson said. “ ... They did not show blacks as stupid. On the contrary, they were shown as superior.” Jackson was inducted in 2001.


The Globetrotters have not one, but two holy rollers on their honorary lineup. Pope Francis was added to the honorary roster in 2015. “His tireless work for the well-being of the poor and elderly, his humanitarian efforts, and his commitment to bridge gaps between people of various cultures are ways the Harlem Globetrotters also aspire to touch lives around the world,” Globetrotters CEO Kurt Schneider said.

Globetrotters Hi-Lite Bruton, Ant Atkinson, Big Easy Lofton, and Flight Time Lang tried to teach the Pope the old trick of spinning a basketball on one finger, but as you can see from the video above, His Holiness should probably stick to recording albums.


Award-winning newscaster Robin Roberts joined the team in 2015, receiving jersey number 21—the same number she wore as a basketball player for Southeastern Louisiana University. “She used her platform as a journalist to selflessly make her personal health battle public in order to raise awareness of the need for bone marrow donors, and by doing so, she potentially helped save lives,” Schneider said. “Robin fully embodies the ambassadorial spirit the Globetrotters have exuded for 90 years."

All photos courtesy of Getty Images. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]