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8 Thoroughly Misleading Baseball Team Names

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by Bob Carson

The Red Sox spent 86 years overcoming an alleged curse. Sammy Sosa somehow got the impression that he needed corked bats to amp up his already terrific game. And a few years ago, a girl in a giant Italian sausage costume was whacked to the ground by the Pittsburgh Pirates' first baseman. We're not saying baseball makes a whole lot of sense; we're just trying to put a small dent in all the mystery—starting with those weird team names you're always hearing.

1. The Altoona Curve

Like curveballs, team names are usually meant to be intimidating.

But Altoona's moniker is based on something far more frightening than anything a pitcher could toss over the plate.

About five miles west of Altoona, Penn., is Horseshoe Curve, a span of railway built in the 1840's that cuts a deathly sharp angle. At the time, figuring out how to get trains through the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania wasn't the easiest task in the world, but fortunately, J. Edgar Thomson found an answer. Constructed with picks, shovels, horses, and drags, this stretch of railroad is considered one of the finest engineering feats of all time. And, considering the nearby rail line allowed little Altoona to grow into a thriving industrial town, it was deemed a fitting tribute for their baseball team as well.

2. Swing of the Quad Cities

If you're thinking of a baseball swing here, you miss! In 2003, Iowa's Quad City River Bandits switched their name to Swing "¦ as in jazz. Turns out, Davenport, Iowa, (a quarter of the Quad Cities) is also the hometown of Bix Beiderbecke, famed coronet genius and 1920s' jazz sensation. Though only on the planet a few short years (he drank himself to death by age 28), wild Bix managed to make quite a lasting impression. In addition to having a baseball team named in his honor, the Davenport native also inspired the 1938 novel Young Man With a Horn, and a 1950s' movie based on the book starring Kirk Douglas.

3. Las Vegas 51's

brand.gifIn the gambling and debauchery capital of America, reason would have it that Las Vegas' baseball team, the 51's, is named after a short deck of cards, or the legendary nightclub on The Strip. Apparently, all those craps games and strip clubs get old after a while, so the good people of Las Vegas searched for a name with a bit more intrigue—the mysterious "Area 51" military base in southern Nevada. Surrounded by ominous signs with phrases like "Restricted Area, Use of Deadly Force Authorized," the base has led to plenty of paranoia and paranormal prognostication since it was first established in the 1950's.

4. South Bend Silver Hawks

While bird names for mascots are popular around the country, aves aren't the highest thing in the South Bend pecking order. From 1957 to 1959, the Studebaker-Packard Co. of South Bend, Ind., produced a snazzy car called the Silver Hawk. The company was a family-owned operation that butted heads with the Big Three auto companies until its last model, the Avanti, rolled off the assembly line in 1964. A source of great pride for the town of South Bend, the Studebaker museum is fittingly located only a block from where the members of its eponymous team play each season.

5. Kannapolis Intimidators

1_logo_kintimidators.gifIn this case, both the team name and the city name merit explanation. Kannapolis is a city in western North Carolina, which was originally known as Cannonville due to its proximity to the Cannon Manufacturing Co. textile mill. Somehow, after years of misspellings and usage tomfoolery the name evolved into Kannapolis. As for the city's intimidation factor, that's based on its very own racecar-driving legend, the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Due to his intensity (and propensity for wrap-around sunglasses), the late N.C. native was known to his legions of fans as "The Intimidator."

6. Idaho Falls Chukars

You might think the folks in Idaho were proud of how hard their players could chuck the ball at opponents and, when naming the team, simply left out that pesky second "˜c.' But that's not the case. The chukar is a small partridge, and not even the scary predator kind that might intimidate an opposing team. In fact, it's a game bird that was introduced to the northwest region of America from Asia in the 1930's for the sole purpose of giving happy hunters something else to shoot and kill.

7. Brooklyn Cyclones

Brooklyn_cyclones.PNGAside from their experiences riding in cabs through Manhattan, New Yorkers don't know too much about the fury that a tornado can unleash, which should be your first clue that this Minor League team name has nothing to do with a funnel cloud. The Brooklyn Cyclones are actually named after the famous Coney Island roller coaster. Early on the morning of June 26, 1927, excited crowds lined up to sample the inaugural run of the mammoth coaster, and by that afternoon, delighted (and nauseated) thrill seekers had a new love. Legend has it that after a brutal spin on the Cyclone, Emilio Franco, mute since birth, spoke his very first words: "I feel sick." While the Brooklyn Dodgers may have moved away, the Cyclone, continued to roll on.

8. Albuquerque Isotopes

Team names are almost always a tribute to something, but it's safe to assume that the Albuquerque Isotopes is one of the only teams in America named in honor of a cartoon episode. But, hey, if any show is going to have that kind of cultural impact, it's going to be "The Simpsons." In a March 2001 episode of the show, Homer goes on a hunger strike because his local baseball team, the Springfield Isotopes, is secretly planning a move to Albuquerque. The real city had lost its minor league team, the Dukes, but were awarded a new one for the 2003 season. New Mexico's baseball fans enjoyed being immortalized in the iconic sitcom so much that they couldn't help but suggest the name.

This list was plucked from an old issue of mental_floss. Make our editors happy and subscribe to magazine here!

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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