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The Two-handed Bowl and other Revolutionary Sports Techniques

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We'll always remember the first time we saw sports' greatest stars pull off their signature tricks, like Michael Jordan dunking or Wayne Gretzky making a seemingly impossible shot. However, titans like these might not be the most important figures in their respective histories. Other innovators may have come up with techniques that irrevocably changed the way their games are played while receiving little fanfare. This weekend, professional bowling saw a bit revolution of its own when Jason Belmonte became the first two-handed bowler ever to win a Professional Bowlers Association championship. To honor this achievement, let's take a look at Belmonte's offbeat technique and those of a few other innovators who changed their sports:

1. Jason Belmonte, Bowling Radical

Unless you're epically walk-up-to-the-line-and-two-handed-roll-between-your-legs bad at bowling, your approach to the game probably resembles the techniques the pros use. You hook your thumb and ring and middle fingers in the ball, kick your back leg behind you, and send the ball on its way. The ball may end up in the gutter, but it looks like bowling. One pro, though, deviates from this formula. Jason Belmonte, a 25-year-old Australian, has a form that's all his own. For starters, he eschews using his thumb and only puts two fingers in the ball. That's not the odd part, though. The truly unique aspect of his technique is that Belmonte uses both arms to roll the ball. He makes his approach with the ball tucked back off of his right hip then slings it two-handed towards the pins. The technique is as effective as it is bizarre to watch. According a recent story in The Boston Globe, Belmonte's two-handed roll makes the ball spin at 630 rpm, whereas most pros can only get up to 400 rpm. The extra spins result in the ball hitting the pins more forcefully. The added oomph translates into higher scores. Belmonte averages a 230, and he's got 34 perfect games to his credit. If you want to see the trick in action, check out Belmonte rolling a 300:

2. Erich Windisch, Hands Down Our Favorite Ski Jumper

sp skiing1.jpgIn 1949, German ski jumper Erich Windisch was probably feeling pretty glum. He had a big tournament coming up, but he was suffering from a dislocated shoulder. The injury meant that he couldn't throw his arms out in front of him Superman-style during his jumps without agonizing pain or potentially making the shoulder worse. Stripped of his ability to achieve the conventional pose, Windisch would likely be drubbed at the tournament. Nevertheless, Windisch entered the tournament, albeit with a tweak in his form. Instead of holding his arms in front of his body for balance, he tucked them down at his sides. It looked funny, but it worked. Windisch's modified position turned out to be much more aerodynamic than the standard jumping pose, and he jumped further than the rest of the field. After this triumph, the "Windisch technique" became the dominant jumping technique until 1985.

3. Dick Fosbury, Unrepentant Flopper

sp fosbury1.jpgBefore Dick Fosbury came along, the high jump wasn't so efficient. Jumpers usually employed a straddle technique where they took to the air, then put their feet over the bar. In 1968, though, Fosbury started to generate some national buzz while jumping for the Oregon State track team. His unusual technique, dubbed "the Fosbury flop," involved a running approach before spinning and going over the bar back first. The invention was part inspiration, part necessity; using the conventional technique, Fosbury couldn't even clear a six-foot bar. While the flop looked odd to observers who were used to the straddle technique, it was undeniably effective. In 1968 Fosbury cleared 7'2 ¼" to win the NCAA championship before soaring 7'1" to win the U.S. Olympic Trials. At the Mexico City Olympics later that summer, Fosbury cleared 2.24 meters to take the gold, and the world got its first look at the new technique. Now nearly every high jumper uses the Fosbury flop. Interestingly, Fosbury may not have been the first to employ the flop that bears his name. According to the International Olympic Committee, a Montana high jumper named Bruce Quande was clearing bars using a flop in photographs that date back to 1963. It was Fosbury, though, who won the Olympic gold and popularized the technique throughout the world.

4. Parry O'Brien, Nice Shot

sp shot .jpgMost of us would probably be happy just to throw a 16-pound ball without pulling a muscle. Former football player Parry O'Brien was a bit more ambitious, though. After quitting the USC football team following a vicious kick to the gut, O'Brien took up the shotput. The dominant technique of the time, which involved rearing back on one leg then lunging forward as you threw the ball, seemed inefficient to O'Brien. Using a little bit of his knowledge of physics, he started dabbling with a new strategy in which he started his throw facing the back of the circle, then spun forward as he launched the shot. The spin gave the toss some extra momentum, and the results were incredible. He set an Olympic record at the 1952 Helsinki Games with a 57' 1 ¼" toss en route to winning a gold, then defended his medal in 1956 and added a silver in 1960. At one point, the spinning throw put O'Brien on a 116-competition winning streak and helped him break the world record 16 times. Now, the "O'Brien glide" is one of the two dominant shotput throwing techniques.

5. Pete Gogolak, Placekicking Revolutionary

sp GogolakLamonica.jpgWatching old football tapes can be a little disorienting. The game is fundamentally similar, but the details aren't quite the same. Take placekicking. Before Pete Gogolak came along, kickers stood directly behind the holder, ran straight up to the ball, and booted it with their toes. Gogolak, a Hungarian immigrant, came up with a new technique while in high school in Ogdensburg, New York. He stood off to one side of the ball when he lined up, then took an angled approach and struck the ball with his instep. At first, he had trouble elevating the ball, but once he mastered the technique, Gogolak's "soccer style" kick was unbeatable. After a successful college career at Cornell, he took the strange kick to the AFL's Buffalo Bills, and he later became the first notable player to jump ship from the AFL to the rival NFL when he signed with the New York Giants. Gogolak still holds the Giants' career scoring record with 646 points, and today it's nearly impossible to find a kicker who doesn't use the soccer style.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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