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Sneakerheads: A Brief History of Sneaker Collecting

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For many of us, buying a pair of sneakers is a chore. But for a sneaker collector, there's no greater joy than a fresh pair of kicks. Here's a look at this growing subculture, whose members are proud to call themselves “sneakerheads.”

From B-Boys to Sneakerheads

Sneaker collecting got its start in the late 1970s as part of the burgeoning b-boy and hip-hop movement of New York City. Unique clothes were a hallmark of early hip-hop, and sneakers were easily customized, either by color coordinating laces to an outfit or by filling in the triple stripes on a pair of Adidas with a magic marker. Once a b-boy found a shoe he liked, it wasn’t unusual for him to buy more than one pair so he could have them on hand when the old ones wore out.

1985 Air Jordans

The sneaker craze hit mainstream America when Nike and Michael Jordan introduced Air Jordans in 1985.

Even at a retail price back then of $125, stores couldn’t keep the shoes on the shelf, and Jordans quickly became a sought-after status symbol. In a shrewd marketing move, Nike continued to produce a new style of Jordans every year. The shoes proved so popular that, by the early 1990s, some estimates say that 1 in every 12 Americans had a pair of Air Jordans.

However, the popularity of Jordans created a backlash among sneaker fans who, like their b-boy forefathers, always wanted their kicks to stand out. These sneakerheads began digging through the back rooms of mom and pop shoe shops to find out-of-production styles, often “copping” them for a fraction of their original price. Of course these vintage shoes were in short supply, so sneakerheads sometimes traveled hundreds of miles, and then bought more than one pair, keeping some “on ice” so they'd always have a fresh supply for years to come. Today, it's not unusual for a committed sneakerhead to have 50 or more pairs of shoes, most of which are “deadstock," meaning they've never been worn (and probably never will be).

From the Street to the Boutique

When shoe companies discovered the lengths sneakerheads would go to for a pair of unique kicks, they started producing limited edition “colorways," a term used to describe the different color schemes and types of materials available across a shoe line. Today, just about every major shoe maker offers limited edition colorways, but Nike has really embraced the concept with lines like the Dunk and the Air Force 1 that are produced almost exclusively as limited editions.


Colorways

Normally, these special colorways are produced in very limited runs—often fewer than 500 pairs worldwide—and are only available at handpicked stores and specialty boutiques where they sell for well over Nike's suggested retail price. But if you miss your chance to buy an exclusive colorway, the secondary market is thriving on eBay and at sneaker consignment shops like Sole Control in Philadelphia, and Flight Club in L.A. and New York. If you have to go this route, be prepared to pay two or three times the already-inflated boutique price.

On top of exclusive retail colorways, there are even rarer collectible shoes that make sneakerheads go crazy. One type are “Friends and Family” editions, colorways created for a celebrity or a company, who give them away as gifts or promotional items. These designs are usually limited to less than 100 pairs, so they fetch top dollar on the collector's market. There are also “Samples," prototype colorways that were never put into production, making these extremely rare; maybe even elevated to “1 of 1” status. Perhaps the most unusual are “Player’s Edition” colorways made for a high-profile celebrity's personal collection. The exclusivity and the provenance of these kicks make them true Holy Grail designs.

10 Kicks to Cop

There are far too many collectible colorways to list, but here are 10 styles that fetch top dollar on eBay and at sneaker consignment shops.

1. Nike Dunk Low “Black & Tans”

Nike Black & Tans were created this year as a toast to the popular drink of the same name, and then released just in time for everyone's favorite drinking holiday, St. Patrick's Day. However, Nike didn't know that “Black and Tan” is a name that leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many on the Emerald Isle. The Black and Tans were a group of World War I veterans assigned by the British government in 1920 to root out IRA members in Ireland. Unfortunately, they used their power to commit indiscriminate acts of violence against non-IRA affiliated citizens, without any legal ramifications. Nike has since apologized for the misstep, but a little controversy can go a long way with collectors.

2. Nike Dunk Low “Heineken”

The Heinekens dropped in 2003, featuring color cues taken from the logo for Heineken Beer (even the brand’s signature red star). The beer company never agreed to this collaboration, though, and has since asked eBay to pull any auctions that use their name to describe the shoes. Of course that only makes them harder for sneakerheads to find, which increases their value considerably.

3. Nike Dunk Low “Freddy”

In 2007, Nike took inspiration from a most unusual place: Freddy Krueger, the star of the popular horror film franchise A Nightmare on Elm Street. Sporting stripes like Freddy’s sweater, a shiny swoosh like his knife-laden glove, blood-splatter highlights, and melted flesh insoles, these shoes are not for the collector who is faint of heart (or fashion).

4. Nike Air Yeezy

The first time a non-athlete got a shoe contract was the $1.6 million deal between Adidas and Run-D.M.C. in 1986. There have been others since, but the first for Nike, with Kanye West, has proven to be a big hit. Kanye's Air Yeezys were released in 2009 in three colorways, at a retail price of $225. Depending on where you look, the first and third colorways go for about $1700, but the second one—black and neon pink—can reach upwards of $2300.

5. Nike Dunk Low “Paris”

The Dunk Paris was released in 2004 as part of Nike’s "White Dunk: Evolution of an Icon" art installation in Paris, France. Exactly 202 pairs were made, all featuring different samples of artwork from painter Bernard Buffet.

6. Air Jordan Retro IV “Eminems”

Another Friends and Family release, 50 pairs of blue and black Air Jordans were made for rap artist Eminem in 2004 to celebrate the release of his fourth album, Encore. Aside from the unusual colorway, the rapper’s name is stitched onto the inside of the tongue and the album title on the heel pull.

7. Nike Air MAG “The McFlys”

You probably remember the 1500 pairs of special Back to the Future shoes released last year. Sadly, they didn't have automatic laces, as the shoes in the movie did, but they did raise $5.7 million for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. British DJ Tinie Tempah paid $37,500 for the very first pair. If you missed your chance to own a piece of sneaker and Hollywood history, and you have some cash to burn, they're available on eBay and at consignment shops for about $3600.

8. Nike Dunk Hi FLOM (For Love Or Money)

Designed by graffiti artist Futura 2000, and limited to only 24 pairs, this Friends and Family colorway featuring different currencies from around the world is considered one of the Holy Grails of shoe collecting.

9. Air Jordan Retro XI “Blackout Samples”

A buyer tried to sell a sample pair of all-black Air Jordan Retro XI’s on eBay for $15,000. This colorway never made it out of the prototype phase, so it’s hard telling how many exist; these could be a rare “1 of 1” shoe.

10. The eBay Charity Dunks

Nike and eBay held a charity auction in 2003 for a pair of shoes based on the eBay logo. The anonymous winning bidder paid $30,000 for a pair that was made-to-fit. To ensure no other eBay Dunks were ever produced, Nike publicly cut up the prototype pair used for the auction, and sent the pieces to the winner for safekeeping.

Sneaker Riots

Whether it's sneakerheads looking for limited edition kicks or just “hypebeasts” chasing the latest fashion trend, there have been times when the demand for popular shoes has gotten ugly. Here are three such shoes.

1. Nike Dunk Low Pigeons

In 2005, Nike introduced the Dunk Low “Pigeons," a colorway limited to 150 pairs and available only at five boutiques in New York City. Although Nike’s suggested price of $69 was inflated to $300, over 100 people eager to score a pair showed up at the boutique, Reed Space, on the morning of release. Unfortunately, the shop only had 20 pairs, so most people went home sans sneakers—and they weren’t happy about it. Although it was tense, the NYPD was able to disperse the crowd before things got out of hand. That night, the shoes were going for $750 on eBay, but today you’ll be lucky to find a pair for less than $2000. Unfortunately, this first “sneaker riot” was not the last.

2. Air Jordan Retro XI

Just after midnight on December 23, 2011, hundreds of people gathered outside shopping malls in order to be one of the first to drop $180 on the Air Jordan Retro XI, a re-release of the 1996 design, now available in two colorways, the “Concord” and the “Cool Grey." Before the night was over, many crowds had gotten out of control. Indianapolis police were called to three different malls, 20 Atlanta police cars responded to a mall in the suburbs, Seattle cops deployed pepper spray, and a man was stabbed in Jersey City, just to name a few of the many incidents reported across the country. For those who wanted the shoes, it was a small price to pay. But for those who didn't get a pair, the price on eBay the next day was $500, which is what they're still valued at today many months later.

3. Nike Air Foamposite One

A similar scene occurred just before the NBA All-Star Game in February, with the release of the $220 glow-in-the-dark Nike Air Foamposite One. Smaller instances occurred in other markets, but Orlando required more than 100 officers in full riot gear, a handful of police dogs, and two choppers to control an anxious crowd of hundreds of shoe shoppers. To prevent a repeat of the Jordan riots, Nike had to cancel the release at that time. In the meantime, the few Galaxies that were purchased in other parts of the country are going for anywhere between $1800 and $2300 online.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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