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8 Obscure Rules From the World of Sports

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After reading Sandy's great Brain Game last week about the MLB rule governing what happens if a player catches a ball with his hat or mask or throws his glove at a ball (the batter is awarded three bases and all runners score), we've been inspired to go digging for some other strange sports rules. Here are a few other obscure rules you might not have known existed:

1. The Fair Catch Kick

It's tough to watch a football game without seeing a fair catch, a play where the player returning the opposing team's punt or kick foregoes his opportunity to run back the ball in exchange for not being touched while trying to catch it. Usually, the receiving team then sends its offense onto the field to start a drive. They don't have to, though. If the receiving team asks for a fair catch kick, they can use the next play to attempt a free kick. These fair catch kicks are field goal attempts, but they're undefended. Rather than lining up on the line of scrimmage, the defense has to stand 10 yards downfield, and instead of having a long snapper fire the ball back to the holder, the holder simply starts the play holding the ball for the kicker.

Why would any team try for an uncontested field goal? Usually fair catch kicks only come at the ends of halves; if a team makes a fair catch with 0:00 showing on the clock, its captains can request a free kick, which gives them a chance (albeit a very slight one) to pick up a few points.

Still, it's fairly uncommon for a half to end with a punt or kickoff. Only a handful of fair catch kicks have been attempted in NFL history, and the last successful attempt came off the toe of Bears kick Mac Percival in 1968. Packers kicker Mason Crosby tried one at the end of the first half of a game against the Lions last season, but the 69-yard boot didn't quite make it.

2. Substitute Baserunners

kapler.jpgHere's one from MLB's rules that came into play a few years ago. In 2005, Red Sox infielder Tony Graffanino belted a homer with outfielder Gabe Kapler standing on first base. As the players did their home run trots, Kapler blew out his Achilles tendon rounding second base. Graffanino had to freeze a few paces behind his injured teammate; if he'd passed the downed man, the homer wouldn't have counted. Eventually, the umps determined that the Sox were entitled to substitute a baserunner for Kapler since he was already entitled to make the full run home.

3. Nailing the Umps

According to MLB's rule 5.09(g), if a pitched ball lodges in the umpire's or catcher's mask or paraphernalia and remains out of play, all runners advance one base.

4. Taking a Plunk While Stealing Home

Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox stole home against the Yankees on Sunday in a thrilling play. What had happened if the pitch from the Yankees' Andy Pettitte had bonked Ellsbury on the noggin as he tried to slide home, though? According to rule 5.09(h), if any legal pitch touches a runner who's trying to score, all runners advance. Thus, the other Sox on base would have all moved up a spot as Jacoby looked for an ice pack.

5. Block that Free Throw

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There's a reason they're called "free" throws. If a basketball player goaltends or attempts to block a freebie, he's probably a jerk, and he's definitely getting tagged with a technical foul. Goaltending a free throw is good for a T, but it can also be a strategic weapon. During a 2008 game against Georgia, much-reviled former Kentucky coach was staring at a 3-point deficit with only a few ticks left on the clock at the end of a game. A Georgia player was about to shoot his second free throw, which Gillispie ordered Perry Stevenson to goaltend. The Cats drew the T, but Gillispie decided he'd rather gamble on Georgia missing both free throws for the technical to ensure that his team got the ball back. Like Gillispie's career in Lexington, the ploy was an epic failure, but it was worth a shot.

6. Sticking with the Right Batting Order

Everyone knows that if a player bats out of turn, he's out. A weird situation popped up in a 2005 Kansas City Royals game, though. David DeJesus batted first in the first inning and hit a single. At that point, the umps realized that DeJesus was actually second in the Royals' lineup and called him out. That meant the second man in the batting order had to come up to bat"¦David DeJesus. He flew out in his second at-bat. Fans of the Royals will tell you this pretty much encapsulates David DeJesus' skill set: he's so bad that he can make two outs in a single inning.

7. Keep that Rosin Dry!

Pitchers rely on the rosin bag to keep their hands try for an optimal grip on the ball, and MLB rules strictly monitor the use of the rosin bag. The ump-in-chief for a game is responsible for placing the bag on the back of the pitcher's mound, and if it starts raining, the rules dictate that the ump is supposed to instruct the pitcher to put the rosin bag in his hip pocket to keep it dry.

8. Stay Off the Rims in Warmups!

This rule came out to bite the Harlem, Montana, boys' high school hoops team last month. According to the state's rules, players are not allowed to dunk during pregame warm-ups and can be slapped for a technical if a ref sees them throw one down. One of Harlem's players found out during this spring's playoffs that the consequences can be far worse than that, though. He hit a jam with such force that he shattered the backboard, which should be the high point of any high school baller's career. According to Montana's rulebook, though, if a player shatters the glass during pregame warm-ups during the playoffs, his team automatically forfeits the game. Don't feel too bad, kid. You may not have won the title, but you broke the glass as a high schooler. You're not going to have any trouble finding a prom date.

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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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