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5 Sports Innovations That Didn't Quite Take

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A lumber-based storm is gathering over Major League Baseball, and it's all about how the bats are made. Popular maple bats have the advantage of being denser than bats made of the other wood of choice, ash, and players feel this quality helps them hit for more power. On the other hand, the maple bats tend to have fat barrels for striking the ball and thin handles and are prone to shattering. When one breaks, pieces of its barrel turn into flying knives ready to impale anyone in their path. Players and coaches are starting to worry about ending up with a sharpened hunk of maple hanging out of their bodies, so the wonder-bats may not stick around much longer. In their honor, though, lets look at a few more sports equipment innovations that didn't quite take.

1. FoxTrax
Better known as the "glow puck," "techno puck," and "thing that was going to make every American love hockey," FoxTrax was an innovation Fox debuted for its coverage of the 1996 NHL All-Star Game. Market research showed that the average novice hockey viewer had trouble finding and following the puck on the ice. Fox execs, ever innovative, decided the solution was making a puck that glowed blue so fans always knew exactly where it was.

Creating the glowing FoxTrax puck was no easy technological feat. The puck itself had to be perfectly identical to a regular NHL puck, but it also had to house a circuit board, battery, and infrared transmitters. When the puck was slapped or dropped for the first time, it would begin transmitting infrared pulses to 20 pulse detectors and ten cameras located around the arena. These signals were then sent to a huge truck outside where the blue glow was added to the TV signal. In short, getting the puck to glow to glow on your TV set was quite a production.

Unfortunately, no one really appreciated the fruits of these labors. Hockey purists were understandably miffed that their viewing experience had been changed and that it now looked like their favorite players were batting around a small blue pillow. The blue glow didn't show up very well against the white ice, and the red shooting-star tail that was added whenever the puck's speed when over 70 mph was generally irritating to fans. Casual fans liked that the puck helped them follow the game, but it didn't generate huge interest in the sport. Worse still, players claimed the FoxTrax pucks didn't have the same feel as their low-tech counterparts and thus affected game play.

FoxTrax continued to make occasional appearances, but public opinion to it never warmed. It made its final appearance in Game One of the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals before retiring to the land of failed gizmos.

2. The Alert Orange Baseball
FoxTrax had a few forefathers, though. Take, for instance, Charlie Finley's alert orange baseball. Finley, the cantankerous and eccentric owner of the Athletics, was always looking for a new way to improve the game and the viewing experience. He felt that the white baseball was too tough for players to pick up in the air and difficult for fans to see from the stands. His solution was painting the ball the color of a road cone to make it easier on the eyes. If batters could see the ball better, they'd hit better. Scoring would go up, games would be more exciting, and fans would flock to stadiums in record numbers. Finley set out to convince his fellow owners that his innovation was perfect.


The other owners weren't buying it, though. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn declined Finley's offer to use the ball, so an indignant Finley set about proving the orange ball's value. He used the ball in an exhibition against the Indians in 1973 to test his theory. Turns out he was half right: fans could see the ball much better as it moved around the field of play. Batters, though, couldn't pick up the rotation on the bright ball, and pitchers complained that the orange covering was too slippery to grip. The ball never made it into a real game.

finley-rabbit.jpg3. The Ball Rabbit
Finley's ball-related innovations weren't limited to the color of the sphere itself, though. He also had a revolutionary idea about how to get the ball into play. In a standard game, the home plate umpire wears a pouch full of balls around his waist, and as balls are lost to scuffing or hit out of play, a bat boy brings a fresh set out balls out to the umpire. It's a simple, efficient system. Finley saw room for improvement, though. He installed an underground device near home plate that the umpire would tap with his foot upon running out of balls. At that point, a mechanical rabbit would emerge from a subterranean lair bearing a basket of fresh balls. Details on how long this necessary innovation lasted are sketchy, but unless I really haven't been paying attention during baseball games, I feel pretty confident saying it never quite took off. [Image courtesy of The Sporting News.]

whitesox-shorts.jpg4. The White Sox Shorts Plan
If any owner could rival Finley's eccentricities, it was Bill Veeck of the White Sox, a tireless and crafty promoter. In 1976, he had a strange idea of his own: outfitting the Sox in shorts instead of pants. The revealing uniforms made their debut on August 8, 1976 against the Royals. The Sox strode out of their dugout wearing short for the first game of a doubleheader, and after only a few innings came to a rather obvious realization. While it's certainly not always comfortable to wear pants in the August heat of Chicago, baseball is a game that necessitates covered legs. Sliding into a base or making a play against an opposing baserunner in metal spikes is considerably less fun with exposed shins.


To add insult to injury, the Royals players mercilessly taunted the Sox, including John Mayberry's quip that the Sox were "the sweetest team we've seen yet." The Sox won the game but switched back to pants for the second half of the doubleheader. The shorts made one more appearance that season before disappearing into the lore of terrible uniform choices. [Image courtesy of MopUpDuty.com.]

5. The NBA's Synthetic Ball
Few equipment changes in recent years have caused as much of an uproar as the NBA's switch from leather to synthetic balls in 2006. Unlike the original leather ball, the new rock had a microfiber composite exterior and a paneling system that changed the number of ribs on the nba-synthetic.jpgball. The NBA's brass thought the new ball was more consistent than its leather equivalents, and cows everywhere rejoiced at the development.


The people who actually had to use the ball, however, hated it. Players started whining about the switch almost immediately. The synthetic surface was easier to grip at the beginning of games, but since it didn't absorb sweat it soon became slippery. The ball's cover was designed to aid grip by generating more friction on the player's hand, but several stars like Jason Kidd and Steve Nash claimed that the surface was actually cutting their fingertips. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban requested a study into the way the ball bounced, and physicists at the University of Texas-Arlington discovered that the composite ball didn't behave the way its leather predecessor did. Shaquille O'Neal added his own droll spin on the issue when he quipped that comparing the new and old balls was "like touching an exotic dancer, and then going and touching a plastic blow-up doll."

As players continued to gripe, the NBA did something almost totally out of character: it admitted it made a mistake. On December 12, 2006, the league announced that all games would return to the old leather ball on January 1, 2007.

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.

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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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