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The Casual Fan's Guide to the College World Series

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For the next two weeks, the distinctive ping of aluminum bat meeting ball returns to the grand stage. The 62nd College World Series begins Saturday at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska, with eight teams—the survivors of what began as a 64-team tournament—divided into two brackets vying for a national championship. A double-elimination format will decide the two bracket winners, who will play a best-of-three championship series beginning June 23. To make sure you're sufficiently prepared, here are answers to eight questions about the CWS.

When was the first College World Series?

California defeated Yale in the first College World Series, which was played at Hyames Field in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1947. The CWS returned to Kalamazoo in 1948, moved to Wichita, Kansas, in 1949, and has been played in Omaha since 1950. Omaha Municipal Stadium was renamed Rosenblatt Stadium in 1964 to honor mayor Johnny Rosenblatt's role in bringing baseball to the city, where more than 6 million fans have walked through the turnstiles at the CWS since 1950. While there was some speculation that the CWS might be on the move again in the near future, those concerns were put to rest earlier this week when the local organizing committee for the event signed a contract to keep the World Series in Omaha through 2035.

cws3.jpgWhat's that big dome beyond the right field bleachers of Rosenblatt Stadium?
That's the Desert Dome, an 84,000-square-foot geodesic dome that includes 1,760 glazed panels and would likely make Buckminster Fuller blush. The $31.5 million structure, which opened in 2002 as part of the Henry Doorly Zoo, features plant and animal life from three deserts: the Namib of Africa, the Red Center of Australia, and the Sonoran of the United States. A 55-foot mountain divides the three deserts in the dome, which is 13 stories tall, and two 20,000-gallon underground tanks collect rainwater. As for the chances of a player hitting a "dome run" during the CWS, well, it would take about a 600-foot blast.

Who are some of the greatest players to play in the CWS?
bonds-sundevils.jpgAmong the list of Most Outstanding Player recipients are such notables as Dave Winfield, Bob Horner, Terry Francona, Calvin Schiraldi and Pat Burrell. Several other players delivered memorable performances in Omaha. In 1965, Ohio State pitcher Steve Arlin compiled 20 strikeouts in a 15-inning shutout win over Washington State in an elimination game. Texas pitcher Roger Clemens anchored one of the most formidable starting rotations in CWS history in 1982, while Barry Bonds made two trips to the CWS with Arizona State and tied a tournament record with eight consecutive hits in 1984. Oklahoma State's Robin Ventura stretched his hitting streak to 57 games "“ one more than Joe Dimaggio's MLB record—in the first game of the 1987 CWS. And with his team trailing Miami 8-7 with two outs and a man on in the bottom of the ninth inning of the 1996 championship game, Warren Morris hit the most memorable home run in CWS history—his only home run of the season.

What about players who later made names for themselves outside of baseball?
george-bush-yale.jpgPerhaps you've heard that George H.W. Bush played in the first College World Series as first baseman for Yale. As team captain, he led Yale back to Kalamazoo in 1948, only to watch from the on-deck circle as Southern California clinched its first title with a game-ending triple play. Perhaps you didn't know that John Peterman—the catalog entrepreneur who operates the J. Peterman Company and who was the inspiration for the Seinfeld character Jacopo Peterman—also played in the College World Series. The real J. Peterman, who is not to be confused with the actor John O'Hurley (above), hit .450 for the 1962 Holy Cross team that won the CWS title and later played three seasons in the Pittsburgh Pirates' system.


Why do so many players stand outside of the dugout?
Watch any CWS game and you're unlikely to see many players sitting in the Rosenblatt Stadium dugouts. Instead, teams generally stand as close to the field as they are allowed, providing the ideal location to see and be seen. There's generally as much action on the top step of each dugout as there is on the field, with players engaging in team-specific dugout rituals (see the video below) and chatter. One of the most common rituals involves "deuces," the term used to describe the situation when there are two balls, two strikes, and two outs in an inning. It's also common for players to don rally caps when trailing late in a game, and teams aren't above bringing good luck charms to Omaha. LSU, for instance, kept a miniature toilet coin bank in its dugout in 1997 and 1998. The idea was that a player who had a bad at-bat or made an error in the field could flush away the memory when he returned to the dugout.

What was Gorilla Ball?
Gorilla Ball was the term used by LSU manager Skip Bertman and popularized by the CWS media to describe the power-hitting approach that led the Tigers to four championships in the 1990s. Gorilla Ball reached its peak in the 1998 championship game (the best-of-three championship series wasn't added until 2003) when Southern California staved off Arizona State in a 21-14 slugfest. The game lasted four hours and included nine home runs by eight players, 39 hits, and 10 pitchers. Jim Wright of the NCAA had the unenviable task of compiling a list of all of the records that were set that day. "It'll be at least an hour, and I may not have all of them then," he told the media after the game. Aluminum bats were introduced to college baseball in 1974 and by the height of Gorilla Ball bat technology was making a mockery of the minimal restrictions placed on bat size and weight, as well as the game. New bat restrictions followed for the 1999 season and offensive production has since declined to less absurd levels.

Speaking of gorillas, does the CWS have a mascot?
Not anymore. John Routh served as "Maniac"—an "orange anteater/pig with a big snout, a big belly and big baseball shoes," as he described it—for 11 years before he was fired in 1992. That ended a magical, maniacal run for Routh, who maniac.jpgdebuted at the CWS in 1981 as "Cocky," South Carolina's student mascot. After graduating from South Carolina, Routh accepted a job as the University of Miami's mascot, "Maniac." He was so popular in Omaha that NCAA director of men's championships Jerry Miles decided to make him the CWS's official mascot. Routh's routine was reminiscent of the San Diego Chicken's. In 1988, he danced the hokey-pokey with all six umpires before the eighth inning of the nationally televised championship game. Fearful that such antics would compromise the integrity of the game, the NCAA Baseball Committee warned Routh that he could no longer include umpires as part of his routine. Four years and one contract dispute later, at "the very strong suggestion" of the same committee Routh was fired. He wasn't out of a high-profile gig for long, however, as he became the original "Billy the Marlin" for the expansion Florida Marlins in 1993.

What school has won the most titles?
Southern California has won a record 12 titles in 21 appearances. All but one of the Trojans' titles—including five straight from 1970-74—came under the leadership of legendary manager Rod Dedeaux. Texas has made a CWS record 32 appearances and boasts six titles, while Arizona State and LSU have won five titles apiece. Florida State, which opens this year's CWS on Saturday with a game against Stanford, hopes to shed its dubious distinction as the team that has made the most trips to Omaha (18 not counting this season) without winning it all.

Scott Allen is an occasional contributor to mental_floss, covering such topics as The Bud Bowl, the original American Gladiators and lavish dog spas across America.

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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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