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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
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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