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8 Things To Do At The Ballpark (Besides Watch The Game)

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If you're a sports fan, nothing beats the thrill of going to a game. If you're not a sports fan, nothing is quite as interminable as being dragged to a game. Simply eating a $12 plastic container of bland nachos isn't going to kill three hours, so you'll have to go out scouting for adventure. You might want to consider one of these fantastic diversions.

1. Pony Riding, Cheney Stadium

Few fans remember the 2004 Tacoma Rainiers' season win-loss record, but scores can probably tell you that it was the year the ponies invaded Cheney Stadium. The Seattle Mariners' AAA minor-league affiliate turned home games into every ten-year-old girl's dream. Not only could young fans ride ponies on the field, but a pony also delivered the game ball to the mound before the first pitch. Sadly, the Rainiers' media office told me this stellar attraction ended with the 2004 season, which means the 2005 season probably broke some sort of record for highest number of crying, disappointed fans under the age of ten. [Note: This photo was not taken at Historic Cheney Park during that magical 2004 season.]

2. Ferris Wheeling, Comerica Park

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Detroit's old Tiger Stadium may have been flush with history, but nobody was going to mistake it for a carnival midway. The Tigers' current home at Comerica Park fixes that problem with both a Ferris wheel and a merry-go-round. The Ferris wheel's cars are actually shaped like baseballs, an aesthetic choice that underscores the strong historical link between Ferris wheels and baseball. No one's so sure what that link is, but it's underscored quite thoroughly. [Photo courtesy of Colossus of Rhode.]

3. Swimming, Chase Field

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The Arizona Diamondbacks' beautiful home stadium houses perhaps the most famous ballpark diversion, a swimming pool just beyond the outfield fence. Don't show up in your swimsuit for just any old Snakes home game, though; according to the team's site, the Riviera Pools Pavilion can be rented to you and 34 friends for a meager $6,500 per game. Of course, that comes with a $750 voucher for food and beverage, so really, it's only $5,750 per game. At that price, you can't afford not to rent it out. [Image courtesy of .]

4. Pet Checking, U.S. Cellular Field

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Nothing's worse than walking through a stadium security check only to find that you've left your pet cat in your purse or backpack. At most ballparks, your day would be ruined since you'd either have to take Mr. Whiskers home or turn him free to fend for himself in the wild. Luckily, the management of the Chicago White Sox has a solution: fans can check their pets for a "minimal fee" which supports non-profit organizations that train service animals. No word on whether or not the team might start a particularly frisky dog at second base this season, although this pet-check is certainly a promising first step towards making the Air Bud series a reality. [Image courtesy of Can't Stop The Bleeding.]

5. Being Terrified, Ripken Stadium

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For most of the year, Aberdeen, Maryland's Aberdeen IronBirds play minor-league hardball in this stadium. In October, though, it turns into the 13th Inning, a haunted house so horrifying that the shaky play of Class-A baseball doesn't seem so scary after all. Don't take my word for it, though; here's the official website's description: "The 13th Inning haunt has you reliving baseball's horrid past as you brave the bloody clubhouse of Manager Justin Bobby, Aberdeen's notorious skipper who stumbled upon a demonic asylum of cannibalistic spirits, demons long buried, who've consumed his players' souls." Whether or not it chills your blood, it's definitely a conceptual nightmare.

6. Sliding Out of a Beverage Bottle, AT&T Park

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The home of baseball's San Francisco Giants boasts many unique elements, from the brick wall in right field to long home runs splashing down in the water of McCovey Cove. It also has a gigantic Coca-Cola bottle behind the left-field bleachers that doubles as the housing for four playground slides. And next to the bottle is an enormous sculpture of a baseball glove that doubles as"¦an enormous sculpture of a baseball glove. The Giants claim it's the world's largest baseball glove, though, so if you're into viewing record-setting sporting equipment, it should be good for at least 90 seconds of entertainment. [Image courtesy of the wildly entertaining Luke Cole's Roadside Attractions.]

7. Getting Sand in Your Shoes, BB&T Coastal Field

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The Myrtle Beach Pelicans, a Class-A Carolina league affiliate of the Atlanta Braves, have an interesting private-party seating gimmick: The Beach. According to the team's website, the sand-filled Beach is stocked with folding lawn chairs and a great view down the third-base line, just like the beach. Except there's no ocean, but it's still perfect for fans whose favorite part of going to the beach is hosing the sand off of their feet. Even better, the section has a private bar and is next to the visitors' bullpen. Life as a minor-league relief pitcher must be tough; it's difficult to imagine that drunken opposing fans with handfuls of sand next to the bullpen would make things much easier.

8. Posing for Questionable Photo Ops, University of Phoenix Stadium

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This year's home for the Super Bowl gets to house the NFL Experience, a football theme park that pops up for entertainment before and during the big game. The attractions are mostly historical or involve running through simulated NFL drills, but in one case the activity involves posing as member of the very bad local football team. As the event's site advertises/warns: "Arizona Cardinals Home Team Photo - Step into a life-sized photo of the Arizona Cardinals and have a friend snap your photograph." Sure, the Cardinals may be perennial losers, but that just means you can show the picture to friends and say, "Oh, yeah, I totally played on their offensive line a year or two ago"¦" and have it sound remotely plausible.

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Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys. His last mental_floss contribution was a quiz on Sibling Underlings.

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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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