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6 Theories on the Origin of the Bullpen

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No one really knows where the term bullpen comes from, and no one theory has enough compelling evidence to support or refute the origin. No more certain is the debate about when the word bullpen was first used. OED sites the earliest use dating back to a 1924 Chicago Tribune article, while other sources say the area referring to where pitchers warm up (especially relief pitchers), was first called the bullpen in a Baseball Magazine article published in 1915.

Regardless, the National League Championship series between the Dodgers and Phillies opens tonight, and the pen is certainly going to figure heavily in it. So we thought we'd take a look at six popular bullpen origin theories that have been going around for some time. If we left one of your favorites off the list, by all means tell us about it in the comments below.

1. The fans herded like cattle theory

85563124ES015_NEW_YORK_YANKOne of the more likely theories goes like this: In the 1800s, a few innings after a game started, fans could get tickets at the box office for a big discount. But cheap tickets came with a, er, catch: you had to stand in a roped-off area off to the side of the field in foul territory. So the fans were treated a bit like cattle in a pen. When this area became the spot where pitchers warmed up, once relievers became part of the game, the name stuck.

2. The Bull Durham Tobacco theory

BullDurham1In the late 1800s, early 1900s, many stadiums featured giant Bull Durham Tobacco ads on the outfield fence. Because relievers warmed up behind the fence, the picture became associated with the pitchers.

3. The pitcher headed to slaughter theory

bullpenThis theory suggests that relievers, like bulls, sit in a holding pen before being sent off to slaughter. Though a clear metaphor, certainly as much could be said for a pitcher like Jose Mesa heading out into game 7 of the '97 World Series, right?

4. The Casey Stengel theory

caseyismOutfielder and manager Casey (at the Bat) Stengel, used to say that the term came from the fact that relief pitchers sat in the pen shooting the bullsh*t.

5. The rodeo theory

rodeo-bull-riding-smSome argue that the name was taken from another popular sport: rodeo. Here, of course, bulls (and their cowboys) are held in a small pen before being released into the arena. Perhaps the bucking bull is a metaphor for the opposing team ready to knock the cowboy out of the game.

6. The Jon Miller theory

worst-outfit-everIf you live in the Bay-area, you certainly are familiar with Jon Miller's voice calling the Giants' games. A favorite on ESPN's Sunday/Monday night baseball, as well, Miller has said that the term originates with the Giants—that is, the New York Giants, who used to play on the Polo Grounds in the late 1800s. According to Miller, there was a real bull pen out beyond the left-field fence, with real bulls in it! And the relief pitchers warmed up not too far from there.

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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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May 23, 2017
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