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Steve Blass' Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Disease

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It might not be as widespread as Gehrig's ALS, but sadly, Steve Blass Disease has taken its fair share of victims. The disease, named after former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Steve Blass, refers to an athlete's sudden and inexplicable loss of ability. Blass got the unfortunate ignomy of having the disease bear his name after his career derailed when he lost the ability to pitch strikes. Until that point, he'd built quite a resume, acquiring 18- and 19-win seasons, making the All-Star team in 1972 and helping the Pirates win the 1971 World Series. Then, in 1973, the wheels came off. He tripled his ERA, walking 84 batters in 88 innings and striking out only 27. In short, he just couldn't pitch. He was sent to the minors in 1974 and, after a failed attempt to make a return, retired before the 1975 season, becoming a sales representative for a ring company.

What's remarkable about Blass' downfall is that there's no explanation. He didn't have any injury, there was no event that shattered his confidence. he just...stopped. The dreaded Steve Blass disease has struck plenty of other athletes, all without reason. The reigning theory is that it's all mental- one mistake leads the player to start overthinking a simple act, like kicking or throwing a ball. But can a simple brain fart stop an athlete's performance? Well, Yogi Berra did once reportedly say "Ninety percent of this game is half mental." However, baseball genius and sports psychology-non-believer Bill James would chalk up that explanation as a modern-day equivalent to witchcraft. There is, as of yet, no known cure, but I'm sure someone, somewhere, is trying to line up Jerry Lewis to host a telethon.

So, who else suffers from this tragic, tragic disease? More after the jump...

Other notable examples of Steve Blass disease:

knoblauch.jpgVictim: Chuck Knoblauch

  • Year of infliction: 1999
  • Before Steve Blass: Star second-basemen for the Minnesota Twins before joining the Yankees. Noted for his defense, even getting the nickname "Fundamentally Sound" Chuck Knoblauch on ESPN (is it really a nickname if you double the number of words?).
  • After Steve Blass: Started making errant throws to first, a routine 90-foot toss. Made an unprecedented 26 errors in 1999. Hit Keith Olbermann's mother in the face when one throw sailed into the crowd. Changed positions a few times before retiring in 2003.

Victim: Ben Hogan

  • Year of infliction: circa 1953, the date of his last majors win
  • Before Steve Blass: The Tiger Woods of his day, gaining the reputation as the greatest golfer of his time. He was especially noted for his ability to drive the ball long distances.
  • After Steve Blass: Developed a case of the "yips," a condition that caused him to miss the easiest putts. Lost two US Open tournaments because he had to take an extra putt on the last hole. Lobbied to have the size of the golf cup to be increased to reduce the importance of putting. Presumably never played putt-putt with his kids.

Victim: Mackey Sasser

  • Year of infliction: circa 1987
  • Before Steve Blass: Backup catcher with a strong bat and lots of promise.
  • After Steve Blass: Lost the ability to throw the ball back to the pitcher. Once gave up a stolen base when he hesitated and lobbed the ball at the pitcher. Retired in 1995 after failing to stop the problem. Inspired the character Rube Baker in Major League 2.vanderjadt.jpg

Victim: Mike Vanderjagt

  • Year of infliction: Closing seconds of the 2005 AFC Championship
  • Before Steve Blass: Surest kicking foot in the NFL. Posted a perfect kicking record in 2003, making 37 of 37 field goals and all 46 extra point attempts. Helped the Indianapolis Colts reach the 2005 AFC Championship game.
  • After Steve Blass: Lost the 2005 AFC Championship game by missing a field goal in the final seconds. Dropped by the Colts and cut from the Dallas Cowboys after making only 72% of his attempts in ten games. Remains unsigned going into the 2007 season.

Victim: Steve Sax

  • Year of infliction: 1983
  • Before Steve Blass: Dependable second-baseman.
  • After Steve Blass: Developed same problem as Knoblauch, losing the ability to throw to first base. Made 30 errors and inspired fans behind first base to start wearing helmets.
  • After After Steve Blass: Somehow managed to cure the disease. Led the league in fielding percentage and double plays in 1989.

Victim: LeBron Jameslebron miss.jpg

  • Year of infliction: 2006
  • Before Steve Blass: Emerged out of high school as an unstoppable force on the basketball courts. Finished second in MVP voting in his third NBA season. Noted for his ability to barrel through multiple defenders to get to the basket.
  • After Steve Blass: Continued to be a good scorer, unless it was the easiest shot possible. Only made around 70% of his free throws, a shot that even fans competing in a half-time promotion hit regularly. Admitted he was in "strugglesville" at the free throw line.

Victim: Anna Kournikova

  • Year of Infliction: 1998
  • Before Steve Blass: One of the premiere female tennis players. No. 1 in doubles and two-time Grand Slam doubles champ with partner Martina Hingis. Knockout beauty.patch-adams-poster01.jpg
  • After Steve Blass; Lost control of serves. Had a string of 182 double-faults in ten straight matches. Retired from tennis, possibly from spinal injuries. Still a knockout.

Victim: Robin Williams (it even goes outside sports)

  • Year of Infliction: circa 1997
  • Before Steve Blass: Good Morning Vietnam, Aladdin, The Birdcage, Mrs. Doubtfire
  • After Steve Blass: Flubber, Patch Adams, RV, License to Wed
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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