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Just what did ever happen to baseball #756?

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As of course you've heard by now, this summer Barry Bonds broke the all-time homerun record set by Henry Aaron and held since 1976. The 756th homerun came on August 7th, 2007. But what has happened to the infamous baseball since it sailed over the fence at AT&T Park in San Francisco? Here's a breakdown:

Matt Murphy, a 21-year-old New Yorker (and Mets fan), books a flight from NYC to Australia with a layover in San Francisco. During said layover, he forks over a ridiculous $100 for a $12 ticket to get the chance to see Bonds smack number 756.

scaredbaseball.gifOn Aug 7th, Bonds does exactly that and immediately chaos ensues as a throng of people throw themselves at the soaring ball.

murphy.jpg Eventually Murphy emerges from the scuffle with a bloody face (and THE BALL) and is immediately ushered downstairs by security.

hulk.jpgThe Giants faithful are beyond peeved that a Mets fan nabbed it. Meanwhile, experts say the ball will sell for half-a-mil at auction.

ebay.jpg Ebay expresses interest but the auction goes to Sotheby and SCP Auctions Inc.

s092660A.jpgSept 15th, 2007: Marc Ecko, a fashion designer (also!) from New York, shells out a whopping $752,467.20 for the THE BALL (clearly it was that extra .20 cents that secured it). Ecko shells out a whopping $752,467.20 for THE BALL (sorry, but is there an Ecko in the house?).

asterisk.jpgEcko starts a Web site where he asks people to vote on whether or not he should have THE BALL branded with an asterisk before turning it over to Cooperstown (that's baseball speak for The Hall of Fame, located in Cooperstown, NY).

rocket.jpgThe options on the Web site are: A: "Bestow it intact to Cooperstown" - B: "Permanently brand the ball with an asterisk before sending it to Cooperstown" and C: "Launch it into space forever"

alex letter B.jpgTen million people cast their votes on THE BALL's fate. Guess what folks? B comes up the winner!

bonds.jpgAsked what he thinks of Ecko's little Web adventure, American hero and idol for many children, Barry Bonds, weighs in: "He's stupid. He's an idiot"¦ He spent $750,000 on the ball and that's what he's doing with it? What he's doing is stupid."

So let me put the question to all you smart _floss readers: Is Barry right? Is Ecko "stupid?" Is he "an idiot"? Should THE BALL be branded with an asterisk?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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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