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Calvinball, Quidditch and other fictional sports you can play

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Authors love to make up games for their fictional worlds -- but these games are typically unplayable in the real world. Quidditch served as the backdrop for plenty of dramatic action in the Harry Potter books, but it involves flying broomsticks and magic balls. Calvinball provided philosophical fodder in Calvin and Hobbes, but its ever-shifting ruleset makes real-world play confusing at best. But guess what? We've tracked down some bizarre examples of fictional sports performed in the flesh.

1. Muggle Quidditch

The full game of Quidditch can't be played in the muggle world, at least not until we get our hands on some broomsticks! The fictional game involves organized teams flying above a modified soccer pitch, pursuing The Golden Snitch whilst avoiding Bludgers and attempting to score with the Quaffle. Confused yet? Clearly you're a muggle.

Well, believe it or not, there is a real-world sport based on the fictional game. Called Muggle Quidditch, it's an organized co-ed college sport that's played on soccer fields. The Intercollegiate Quidditch Association includes 105 schools, and was actually profiled in the Wall Street Journal.

Muggle Quidditch has some notable differences from the fictional game. For one, the Snitch is played by a human being (typically dressed in yellow) who is allowed to run from the field, pursued by the Seekers on foot (generally the entire school campus is considered fair game for the Snitch). Another rule change involves the Bludger: in some versions of the sport, Bludgers are dodgeballs served with tennis rackets; in others, there's no Bludger at all, and beaters simply tackle other players.

For more on Muggle Quidditch, see the rules on Wikipedia or the WSJ profile.

2. BASEketball

The sport of BASEketball came to national prominence in the 1998 movie of the same name. In the movie, a pair of losers (who also happen to be Trey and Matt from South Park) invent the game as a mashup of baseball and basketball, and enjoy early success...until things quickly get out of hand. (Hilarity ensues.) But BASEketball isn't just a convenient fiction -- it's a real sport that has spawned at least five leagues.

According to Wikipedia, film director David Zucker "invented BASEketball years before the movie as a game that everyone could play and held games in his driveway. It became so popular a small league was created. By the fifth season championship game, the event was so big that the city shut down the street and two local Los Angeles TV stations came to report on it." So that was the first league.

BASEketballThe web is also rife with other BASEketball leagues. The most fun is a nascent BASEketball League hosted on Tripod. Its home page is remarkable partly for its spelling mistakes, but also for the message from its founder: "I still need a few last players to finish out the 8 teams. Its looking like it will be a 14 game season, with each team playing every team twice. I am working on the scedule the next few days. I need to get available days teams can play from a few people yet. Im looking to start next week. So get ready." Later he writes, "I decided to postpon the league to next year....I will have a day and time decided for when games will be played...until then we will be playing exhibition games." Until then you'll just have to check out the list of teams, league leaders, and the schedule (such as it is).

Other leagues include "My League," The Shenangahela BASEketball League (with teams including The Laser Cats and Voltron!), and the Burlington BASEketball League. (That last one actually seems the most legitimate of all.) While I'm sure there are more leagues, I just had to stop at five. They were getting too awesome.

3. Organized Calvinball

CalvinballCalvinball was invented by Bill Watterson for his comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. The game itself rebels against organized sports, as Hobbes declares: "No sport is less organized than Calvinball!" Calvinball's rules are arbitrary and constantly changing (in fact, the only stable rule is that the rules must change), scoring is arbitrary and nonsensical (matches may conclude with a score of "oogy to boogy"), and equipment is entirely based on whatever comes to hand.

The nature of Calvinball seems to preclude any organization of the sport. But that didn't stop one inventor from proposing a Professional Calvinball League in 2002. The proposal read, in part, "Since there will really be no winners, rankings and rosters are unnecessary." Respondences were mixed, though one pointed out: "Since this is 'Professional' Calvinball, all players are automatically disqualified." Hmm.

Although no evidence exists for an organized Calvinball league, there are many instances of people calling for one and even recording their own gameplay, perhaps with an eye towards some future international governing body sanctioning the sport. A Calvinball World Championship was proposed in 2006 on the site Wikimania, and included an amusing Calvinball Disclaimer Form, which asked the "Sucker" signing the form questions such as, "Are you a organ donor?" and "May we steal your wallet/purse prior to the arrival of a[n] ambulance?"

For more on Calvinball, check out Wikipedia or the official "rules."

4. 43-Man Squamish

43-Man Squamish

43-Man Squamish was invented in the ninety-fifth issue of MAD Magazine by MAD's "Athletic Council," George Woodbridge and Tom Koch. It was designed to be unplayably complex, but according to Wikipedia, "MAD magazine received so many reprint requests from colleges, it appears that some colleges have attempted to form teams and play the game."

For our readers who'd like to begin their own league, let's just quote a bit from the rules:

Participants

Each team consists of one left and one right Inside Grouch, one left and one right Outside Grouch, four Deep Brooders, four Shallow Brooders, five Wicket Men, three Offensive Niblings, four Quarter-Frummerts, two Half-Frummerts, one Full-Frummert, two Overblats, two Underblats, nine Back-Up Finks, two Leapers and a Dummy — for a total of 43.

The game officials are a Probate Judge (dressed as a British judge, with wig), a Field Representative (in a Scottish kilt), a Head Cockswain (in long overcoat), and a Baggage Smasher (dressed as a male beachgoer in pre-World War I years). None has any authority after play has begun.

Gameplay

Before any game, the Probate Judge must first flip a coin, usually a new Spanish peseta, while the Visiting Captain guesses the toss. If he guesses correctly, the game is cancelled immediately. If not, the Home Team Captain must then decide if he wishes to play offense or defense first. Play begins after a frullip is touched to the flutney and the recitation "My uncle is sick but the highway is green!" is intoned in Spanish. Penalties are applied for infractions such as walling the Pritz, icing on fifth snivel, running with the mob, rushing the season, inability to face facts, and sending the Dummy home early.

If you can handle complexity, check out the original 43-Man Squamish rules from 1965, or the (only slightly) more followable Wikipedia explanation.

5. Brockian Ultra-Cricket

Brockian Ultra-Cricket was first introduced by Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. While there are various, uh, difficult-to-implement rules ("Rule One: Grow at least three extra legs. You won't need them, but it keeps the crowds amused"), the core game mechanic can be performed in the real world:

Rule Four: Throw lots of assorted items of sporting equipment over the walls for the players. Anything will do — cricket bats, basecube bats, tennis guns, skis, anything you can get a good swing with.

Rule Five: The players should now lay about themselves for all they are worth with whatever they find to hand. Whenever a player scores a 'hit' on another player, he should immediately run away and apologize from a safe distance.

Apologies should be concise, sincere and, for maximum clarity and points, delivered through a megaphone.

Rule Six: The winning team shall be the first team that wins.

Don't PanicBrockian Ultra-Cricket was the inspiration for Tim Astley's slightly more pedestrian Ultra Cricket, an online cricket league which boasts over 550 teams from around the world. Playing in fourteen-week seasons, Ultra Cricket was popularized in the 1990s, when it was played via email. Read this review for some more history. Sadly, Astley's vision of the sport is decidedly more human than Brockian, leaving the formation of a real-world Brockian Ultra-Cricket league in the hands of future generations.

What sports have we left out? Share your favorite fictional sports-turned-real in the comments. (Or just strap a box of paper to each foot and play an awesome round of Flonkerton.)

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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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