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The mental_floss Guide to the Ryder Cup

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Golf's Ryder Cup takes over Louisville's Valhalla Golf Club this weekend as Europe and the United States vie for world supremacy in the sport. The biennial event is a big date on golf's calendar, but what are the origins and history of this heated tradition? Let's try to answer a few questions.

1. How long has the Ryder Cup been around?

The idea of pitting the top American golf pros against their British counterparts was the brainchild of Sylvanus P. Jermain, the president of Toledo's Inverness Club. Jermain first presented the idea in 1921, and the two countries played an unofficial exhibition match that year. The British creamed the Americans 9-3. A 1926 rematch was even more disastrous for the Americans, who lost this tilt 13.5 to 1.5. The event became an actual competition in 1927 in Worcester, Massachusetts.

2. Why is it called the Ryder Cup?

The 1926 exhibition contest drew a healthy crowd, but no one was quite as interested as Samuel Ryder, an Englishman who had become quite wealthy selling packets of seeds. Ryder was an enthusiastic amateur golfer and a devoted student of British star Abe Mitchell. After the exhibition ended, Mitchell and his fellow golfers talked Ryder into donating a trophy to get the two countries to compete on a regular basis. Ryder also offered five pounds apiece to the members of the winning team, a post-match party, and picked up a shortfall in the British travel budget for the first Ryder Cup in 1927.

3. What's the trophy like?

Ryder commissioned a large gold chalice for the winning country and shelled out 250 pounds for its design and creation. The 17-inch trophy reaches its peak with a tiny golfer modeled after Ryder's favorite British star and tutor, Abe Mitchell.

4. Wait, British and American golfers? Aren't there Europeans in this year's Ryder Cup?

Yes, there are. Although the British pummeled the U.S. team in those two early exhibitions, the tables turned once the official Ryder Cup began. Americans won the inaugural event in 1927, and although the British team won in 1929 and 1933, they only picked up one more victory in the next 50 years. During the 1977 Cup, American legend Jack Nicklaus pointed out that the Cup's popularity would probably wane if something didn't level the playing field. After some debate and the approval of Samuel Ryder's family, organizers decided to transform the British team into a European squad for the 1979 Ryder Cup. Although the American team won the first three Cups against the European team, the Euros have taken eight of the last 11 meetings, including a three-Cup winning streak coming into this year's competition.

5. What's the format of the Ryder Cup?

Every part of the Ryder Cup tournament is played according to match play rules, which means that the two teams compete to win each hole and whichever side wins more holes over the course of the round wins the game. Each game won earns the player or team's side a point. Ties are "halved," which means each team gets half a point.

Various rounds throughout the weekend have different structures, though. This year four groups of two-man teams will pair off in fourball play on Friday and Saturday. In fourball matches, two golfers from each team play each hole on their own, and the team whose player has the lowest score on the hole wins the hole. On Friday and Saturday four more groups of two-man teams will face off in foursomes play in which each team just plays a single ball and teammates alternate shots. Whichever team holes the ball in the fewest strokes wins the hole. Finally, on Sunday each team sends out 12 golfers for one-on-one singles match play against a member of the opposite team. Lowest score on each hole wins it. Whichever team wins the most points over the course of the 28-game weekend wins the Ryder Cup.

6. What happens if the two teams tie?

In the event of a tie, the Cup stays with the defending champs, so if the U.S. wants the hardware, it needs to win outright. This rule came into play in 1969 and again in 1989.

7. What do the team captains do?

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This year's captains, Nick Faldo for the Euros and Paul Azinger for the Americans (above), won't be playing, but they'll play a crucial role in their team's chances. PGA Tour earnings or World and European Points ranking determine most spots on the teams' rosters, but the respective captains get to pick the final four golfers for the American squad and the last two for the Euro team. The captains determine the team pairings for the early rounds, an important task that requires a keen eye for team chemistry. The captain of the home team also gets to determine the format of certain rounds; this year Azinger used this power to change what had been a better-ball format back to the alternate-shot foursomes.

8. Who's the best Ryder Cup golfer ever?

Hard to say, but Nick Faldo deserves to be in the conversation. The English great has appeared in a record 11 Ryder Cups, and has won more points (25) than anyone else in Ryder Cup history. He's the captain of this year's Euro squad, but like we said, he won't be playing. German pro Bernhard Langer isn't too far behind Faldo, though. The winner of the 1983 and 1985 Masters has the second-most points in Ryder Cup history (24) and is tied for second-most appearances with Irish pro Christy O'Connor, Sr.

Ethan Trex 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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