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8 Sports-Related April Fools' Day Hoaxes

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Last February, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Brett Myers devised a plan to fool teammate Kyle Kendrick into thinking that he had been traded to Japan for a player named Kobayashi. Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel, Kendrick's agent, and even the team's beat reporters were in on the prank, which was executed flawlessly. Had Myers attempted the same stunt on April Fools' Day, it's less likely that Kendrick would have taken the bait. But as some of the following stories illustrate, one can never underestimate others' gullibility, no matter the date.

1. The Curious Case of Sidd Finch

As sports-related April Fools' Day hoaxes go, George Plimpton's 1985 Sports Illustrated essay about New York Mets pitching prodigy Sidd Finch is the (fools') gold standard. As Plimpton told it, Finch, who wore a single hiking boot, had mastered the art of pitching in a Tibetan monastery and could throw a baseball 168 miles per hour. Many readers initially believed the story, while Mets fans willed it to be true. In addition to the fantastical details Plimpton included in the piece, the first letter in each of the first 19 words of the article's sub-headline provided another hint that Finch wasn't real: "He's a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd's deciding about yoga "“ and his future in baseball." You can read the article in its entirety here.

2. Orchestra Steroid Scandal

NPR poked fun at baseball's steroid scandal with an April Fools' Day report on the proliferation of performance-enhancing drugs among musicians in 2005. During the segment, NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman deadpans, "I'm not a music reporter, but I've heard from others that this is a very serious issue and it brings up a whole host of issues related to performance-enhancing drugs." Carter Bray, the principal cellist for the New York Philharmonic, offers some explanation for why his peers might resort to steroids. "I think the public doesn't understand the kind of pressure that orchestra musicians are under to play faster and louder," Bray says. Ever dedicated to providing a variety of viewpoints, even for fictitious stories, NPR quotes a physician about the warning signs that a musician may be on the juice (overdeveloped triceps in the bow arm and descending neck veins, if you're curious). One solution to the problem, according to Goldman, will sound familiar: mandatory drug testing.

3. The 26-Day Marathon

Before there was Forrest Gump, there was Kimo Nakajimi. In 1981, the Daily Mail ran a story about the Japanese runner, who entered the London Marathon, but, on account of a translation error, thought he had to run for 26 days, not 26 miles. According to the fictional story, which included photos, Nakajimi ignored the locals who urged him to stop and was determined to finish the race he thought he had signed up to run.

4. Olympic Genes

The cycling magazine VeloNews has an April Fools' Day tradition of posting farcical stories on its Web site. Last year, an article about the launch of a sperm and egg bank company, PC Olympic Genes, by former U.S. Olympians Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter drew the ire of readers who didn't understand it was a joke. According to the hoax, prospective parents could purchase Phinney's sperm or Carpenter's eggs for $250,000; for one million dollars, the company would combine Phinney's sperm and Carpenter's eggs. "It's literally a no-brainer for couples who want champion children," fictitious company spokesman Felix Magowan says in the article. "This is absolutely disgusting," one reader later wrote. "I feel for these children who will likely be pressured to fulfill the athletic dreams of their parents. My admiration for these two exceptional athletes is now tarnished." Previous April Fools' Day articles published by VeloNews include a story that USA Cycling was outsourcing its membership services to a contractor in India, and a conspiracy theory that the sunflowers that line the route of the Tour de France are the result of a secret program of genetic manipulation.

5. Soviet Newspaper Plays Soviet-Style Prank

Picture 12.pngIn 1988, the Soviet newspaper Izvestia reported that Spartak, a Moscow soccer team, was in negotiations with Argentine star Diego Maradona, who was playing for the Italian Napoli club at the time. According to the article, Spartak would pay Maradona $6 million to come play for them within the year. An editor later admitted that the story was an April Fools' hoax, the first such hoax ever published by the paper.

6. Hockey Prank Causes Headache for Ombudsman

In 2003, an Ottawa sports radio station announced that CBC television was canceling its scheduled coverage of the Ottawa Senators' first round playoff series due to budget cuts, and would air rival Toronto's games instead. CBC ombudsman David Bazay received hundreds of phone calls and e-mails from angry Senators fans who didn't realize that the announcement was a joke. Bazay didn't find it particularly funny, either. "Frankly, it's silly when there are a lot of other serious complaints that I could have been dealing with," he told reporters. "We have a war going on in Iraq, there's the SARS outbreak. It's just not very productive to spend my time dealing with this type of thing."

7. Mark Cuban's Fake Fight

MarkCuban.jpgIn 2003, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban got into a shoving match with a phony NBA official during a timeout. Cuban, never one to shy away from controversy, was poking fun at himself for being fined repeatedly for his complaints about NBA officiating. A Mavericks equipment manager restrained Cuban during the fake fight, drawing cheers from the crowd and even a few laughs from the real officials at the game. The Mavericks' players weren't in on the April Fools' Day prank, so Dallas reserve center Evan Eschmeyer rushed to help restrain the man who signs his checks. "It was a good laugh," Eschmeyer said afterward. "I think it's a good thing I didn't go out and punch the guy or we'd probably all be looking at this in a different light."

8. Soccer Star Yardis Alpolfo

In 2003, the Glasgow Rangers published a story on their Web site announcing that manager Alex McLeish had signed a Turkish striker for 10 million pounds. The player, who the report compared to legendary Turkish striker Hakan Sukur, was named Yardis Alpolfo. Perhaps you've already figured out that the name is an anagram for April Fools' Day, but if not, don't feel too bad. Reuters ran with the story before an official from the Rangers informed the news agency that it was a joke.

For more April Fools' Day hoaxes, be sure to visit The Museum of Hoaxes.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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