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Hit Me With Your Best Shot: A Brief History of Presidential Pitching

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"Last year, more Americans went to symphonies than went to baseball games. This may be viewed as an alarming statistic, but I think that both baseball and the country will endure."
"“ President John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Last Tuesday, President Barack Obama threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Washington Nationals home opener against the Philadelphia Phillies. It wasn't pretty. Obama's pitch was high and outside, which juxtaposes nicely with the too-low toss that was the first presidential opening day pitch, made 100 years ago today.*


On April 14, 1910, President William Taft, an avid sports fan, went to see the Washington play their home opener against, coincidentally, Philadelphia (back then, however, the teams were the Senators and the Athletics). A few members of his administration came along, including military aide Archibald Butt. Just before the game started, umpire Billy Evans walked over to Taft's seat on the first base line, unprompted, and handed him a new baseball. He asked the president to throw the ball from the stands to Senators pitcher Walter Johnson at home plate to officially start the American League season. Taft rose, turned and threw a right-handed pitch low and inside. Contemporary accounts say the throw had little grace or style, but Johnson caught it and the crowd went nuts. Washington beat Philadelphia 3-0 and Taft later autographed the ball for the team.

Taft threw out the first pitch of the 1911 season, too, but the budding tradition experienced some growing pains in the following years.

Taft skipped the 1912 home opener when his close friend Butt went down with the Titanic —on the return trip from a vacation Taft had urged him to take. The United States occupation of Veracruz kept Woodrow Wilson from throwing the first pitch of 1914, and he missed four more home openers because of World War I (1917 and 1918), the Paris Peace Conference (1919) and a stroke (1920).

Even with the shaky start, the president's ceremonial pitch became cemented as a part of baseball tradition. Until 1972, when the Senators moved to Texas and became the Rangers, every president threw at least one first pitch at a Senators home opener.** Between 1972 and 2005, when baseball came back to D.C. with the Washington Nationals, Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43 threw the Opening Day first pitch outside of Washington D.C., most often in Baltimore. Every president from that era except Jimmy Carter has thrown out at least one ceremonial pitch, either at an Opening Day game, the All-Star Game, or a World Series game.


Since we're talking baseball, let's get down to the stats and trivia:


- Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower tie for most pitches thrown at opening day games with 8 pitches each.

- In 1946, Harry Truman was the first president to throw out a first pitch left-handed. In 1950, he threw two pitches—one with each hand.

- Ronald Reagan was the first President to throw from the pitcher's mound; Bill Clinton was the first to get the ball from the mound to the catcher without it bouncing.

- 1921 marked the first time the Senators lost when a President (Warren Harding) threw out the first pitch before the game.

- Obama's pitch last week was the 50th time a President has thrown the Opening Day pitch in Washington D.C. and the 67th time in any city.

"“ And if you're looking for the most emotional first pitch, whatever your political leanings, George W. Bush's post-9/11 strike is tough to beat:

*Presidential being the operative word. Contrary to popular belief, the tradition of a ceremonial first pitch by an important guest didn't originate in America, but Japan, where former Prime Minister and Waseda University founder Okuma Shigenobu threw the first ball of the Waseda team's season in 1908.

**In 1960, the Washington Senators moved to Minnesota and became the Twins. The following season, an expansion team in Washington, D.C., also called the Senators, began play. That's the franchise that relocated to Texas before the 1972 season.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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