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The Knuckleball

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To continue on with yesterday's baseball pitches theme, today I thought we'd look at the knuckleball, which was on display last night as Boston's famous knuckleball pitcher, Tim Wakefield, was knocked around by the Rays' offense. Outside of Wakefield, there are only a couple other Major League pitchers playing the game today who throw the unusual pitch. This is due in no small part to the level of difficulty not only throwing the ball, but catching it. An MLB.com headline yesterday, before the Boston game started, read: "Boston could be in real trouble if Tim Wakefield's knuckleball isn't fluttering"¦"

Throwing a fluttering, or dancing knuckleball is tremendously difficult because in order to make the ball dip, corkscrew, and flutter, there has to be very little spin of any kind. In fact, it's not unusual for the ball to make less than a couple rotations total before it reaches home plate. Making things even more complicated, the ball is thrown with very little velocity (generally between 55-75 mph). So a bad knuckleball is easy to track and swat out of the park, as happened three times last night. On the other hand, a good knuckleball makes the best batters look like amateurs. So what's the secret to throwing a knuckleball?

bd9d03ba84_cicc.jpgWell, first there's the grip. When the pitch was originally developed by early pioneers like Eddie Cicotte in the beginning of the 20th century, it was thrown by holding the ball with the knuckles. In fact, Cicotte's nickname was "Knuckles." But over time, pitchers started gripping a knuckler with the fingertips, to help prevent the ball from spinning in the air. It's still thrown that way today. Because the ball remains relatively motionless in flight, the air around it becomes turbulent at the ball's seams. This causes the ball to move erratically, fooling the batter and often making him look ridiculous as he swings futilely.

knuckleball.jpgBut the erratic movement of the ball also makes it hard to catch. For this reason, you'll often see the catcher wearing an oversized mitt or even a first-baseman's mitt to catch the ball. You'll even see special players in the game just to prevent the huge number of passed balls that can occur as a result of the flutter. If you remember the 2004 Red Sox, Doug Mirabelli would usually replace Jason Varitek as catcher when Tim Wakefield was on the hill.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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