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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
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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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