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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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