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The mental_floss Guide to the U.S. Open

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After a wet start yesterday, the U.S. Open is in full swing at Bethpage Black on Long Island. We dug through the championship's history to find some crucial details (and trivial moments, too).

How old is the tournament?

The Newport Country Club of Rhode Island hosted the first U.S. Open in 1895 with far less fanfare than the modern tournament receives. Instead of a mad scramble to make the elite field, the competition only had 11 entrants, each of whom played a nine-hole course four times in a single day. The U.S. Open wasn't even the main draw on the course that week; spectators and golfers were much more preoccupied with the first playing of U.S. Amateur Championship at the club, which made the Open something of an afterthought. At the end of play, Englishman Horace Rawlins claimed the title and pocketed $150 and a gold medal for his stellar performance. (He also made a compelling case for home-course advantage in golf; by day the young champ was the assistant pro at"¦you guessed it, the Newport Country Club.) The Open's been played ever since with two exceptions: a two-year break for World War I and a four-year gap during World War II.

So Americans dominated right off the bat, right?

Hardly. Although the tournament was called the U.S. Open, winning was strictly a British affair in its early days. From 1895 to 1910, British golfers won every year, including four wins by Scottish immigrant Willie Anderson. Americans didn't claim their own Open until 1911 when Philadelphia's John J. McDermott bested the field by three strokes. McDermott, who was only 19 years old at the time of his victory, still holds the record for youngest Open champ. Just as impressively, he successfully defended his title the following year at the Country Club of Buffalo.

Why is it called the U.S. Open?

Technically, the tournament is open to all comers rather than restricted to a certain group of golfers. Both amateurs john-daly.jpgand professionals can compete in the event, so in theory, any golfer in the world is eligible for the field. Thus, it's an "open" tournament. Of course, you can't just show up with your bag and shoes on Thursday morning and expect to tee off with Tiger. Golfers have to either qualify for the championship or gain an invitation through a qualifying exemption, which are given to past champions, recent champions of other major championships, top-ranked professionals, and other elite groups.


Amateurs with handicaps of 1.4 or less can play in the U.S. Open if they make it through the qualifying process, which includes a local qualifying round and a sectional qualifying round. Golfers who manage to qualify in this way had better behave themselves, though. The USGA's website ominously warns that golfers are "subject to rejection at any time (including during the Championship) by the USGA. The reason for rejection may include unbecoming conduct." If John Daly's been sliding by, though, it's probably tough to get the boot.

What's the roughest time anyone's had at the Open?

It would be hard to beat J.D. Tucker in the futility department. He took the course for the 1898 Open at the Myopia Hunt Club in S. Hamilton, MA, and proceeded to shoot a 157 in his opening round. During his second round the same day, he carved 57 strokes off of his score, but that only got him to a not-so-competitive 100. He then withdrew from the tournament.

For a single hole, though, Ray Ainsley gave Tucker a run for his money. At the 1938 Open at Cherry Hills in Englewood, Colorado, Ainsley hit into a creek on the 16th hole of his second round. Rather than take a penalty, Ainsley thought he'd try to hit the ball out of the water. When his first attempt was unsuccessful, he tried again. And again. And again. When the ball finally found its way onto dry land and into the cup, Ainsley had racked up a 19-stroke hole, a record that still stands. That should make you feel better the next time you have to suck it up and take a drop.

Who was the unlikeliest champion?

shia.jpgThat honor probably belongs to Francis Ouimet, the former caddy who took the 1913 U.S. Open at the course he used to patrol, the Country Club of Brookline, MA. Although he was an amateur facing stiff competition from celebrated British pros like Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, Ouimet managed to squeak out a victory following an 18-hole playoff. Fittingly, Ouimet's caddy made him look old; 10-year-old friend Eddie Lowery skipped school to man the bag for Ouimet throughout the tournament. The national press hung on young Ouimet's gutsy performance against his British rivals, and the stunning win is credited with helping to popularize golf in the U.S. Sounds like a Disney movie, doesn't it? It is; the story was adapted in 2005 as The Greatest Game Ever Played starring Shia LeBeouf as Ouimet.

Why doesn't Bobby Jones have five U.S. Open titles?

Amateur golfer Bobby Jones was undoubtedly one of the best golfers of all time, and he had the hardware to back it up: four U.S. Open wins, another three wins in the British Open, and six more wins between the U.S. Amateur and the British Amateur. He might have had a fifth U.S. Open title if he hadn't been so honest, though. At the 1925 U.S. Open, he was getting set to hit an iron shot out of the rough when he felt his club move the ball ever so slightly. No one else seemed to have seen this movement, but Jones called a penalty on himself. After officials were unable to confirm that the ball had actually moved, they allowed Jones to make his own ruling on whether or not he should be penalized. Jones said he was certain the ball had moved and penalized himself. The decision cost him the outright title, and he then lost a playoff to Willie Macfarlane. Spectators praised Jones for being so conscientious, but he would have none of it. He flatly replied, "You might as well praise me for not robbing banks."

Who was the unhealthiest champ?

angel.jpgAnyone who watched Angel Cabrera win the 2007 U.S. Open while chain-smoking between shots might be surprised to learn the tobacco-loving Argentine doesn't hold this distinction. Olin Dutra's win at the 1934 U.S. Open was as much a medical marvel as it was an athletic achievement after Dutra got sick on his way to the tournament. He wasn't just a little ill; he was suffering from a case of amoebic dysentery that caused him to lose 15 pounds before the tournament began. For the first two rounds, Dutra played well enough to lurk just eight strokes back on the leaderboard. The third round was disastrous, though. The dysentery acted up, and Dutra dropped to 18th place. In the final round, though, he roared back despite feeling ill and being forced to subsist on sugar cubes. By shooting a final-round 72, Dutra passed Bobby Cruickshank and Gene Sarazen to win his only U.S. Open crown by just one stroke.

Honorable mention in this category has to go to Ken Venturi, who won the 1964 U.S Open at the Congressional Country Club in Bethestda, Maryland. The sweltering sun got to Venturi in his final round, and he nearly collapsed from heat exhaustion. He eventually completed his victory under the watchful eye of a doctor.

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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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