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The Zany History of Mini Golf

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Whether you call it "mini golf," "putt putt," or "a cheap date," the miniaturized sport has been popular since the 19th century.

The oldest mini golf course in existence can actually be found in Scotland: The Ladies' Putting Club of St. Andrews was formed in 1867 as a members-only green for women golfers. Of course, the club was a result of the conventions of the day that decreed it improper for a lady to "take the club back past their shoulder." There may not have been any windmills or loop-the-loop obstacles on this course, but the green was and remains one of the most prestigious miniature courses around.

All of the early miniature golf courses fell under a few broad categories, including the "pitch and putt," the "regulation par-3," and the "executive." All of them used a short driver along with a putter, and kept the same design of the larger courses: sand traps, hills, ponds, and trees. In 1916, James Barber designed a miniature golf course in North Carolina called "Thistle Dhu." The course was compact and featured a classical design, with fountains, gardens, and geometrically-designed walkway patterns. In 1926, a few innovative designers created miniature golf courses on the roof of a New York City skyscraper, and other buildings followed suit "“ around 150 rooftop courses were in existence by the end of the decade in New York City alone.

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[Philly Mini Golf images courtesy of BridgeandTunnelClub.com. Lots more where these came from.]

Adding the Zany

Once the Great Depression hit, regulation miniature golf courses were too expensive for most to afford, so "rinkie-dink" courses sprang up. These courses included obstacles scrounged from whatever was around: tires, rain gutters, barrels, and pipes. Eventually, the crazy obstacles became so popular that they became a regular feature in courses all over the US.

As for the first miniature golf franchise, you have 1929's Tom Thumb Golf to thank for that. In the early 1930s, it was estimated that around 25% of the miniature golf courses in the US were Tom Thumb patented designs. Building on the popularity of the rinkie-dink courses, the Tom Thumbs featured similar hazards, built by workers in their "fantasy factory." By the end of the 1930s, some 4 million people in the US were playing miniature golf.

The Anti-Zany Movement

In 1953, however, a mini golf revolution occurred. The founder of "Putt Putt Golf and Games," Don Clayton, was fed up with the "trick shots" in the Tom Thumb style courses, and became an advocate for miniature golf as a serious sport. He designed a back-to-basics course of only straight putts, with none of the gimmicky hazards of Tom Thumb.

Unfortunately for Clayton, his vision didn't hold out. In 1955, Al Lomma and Lomma Enterprises, Inc. ushered in a new era of mechanically animated hazards like rotating windmill blades, twisting statues, and moving ramps, and the trend remained for decades.

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Toward the end of the 1990s, country-club style miniature golf courses began to make a comeback, thanks in part to the interest of well-known celebrity golfers like Jack Nicklaus. Today, miniature golf competitions are held not only on courses with windmills and castles, but also on miniature replicas of famous greens, with the same sand and water traps courses used back in the early 20th century.

This article was written by Ransom Riggs and excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything. You can pick up a copy in our store.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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