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A Brief History of Wiffle Ball

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Wiffle Ball season is once again upon us. Before you pick up your first white plastic ball and yellow plastic bat of the summer, we thought we'd fill you in on a few points about the proud game's history and science.

Where did Wiffle Ball originate?

In 1953, David N. Mullany was watching his 12-year-old son and some friends playing a baseball-like game with a perforated plastic golf ball and a broomstick in their Fairfield, CT, backyard. The boys were trying to sneak pitches past each other by throwing curveballs and sliders, but to no avail.

Mullany, who had been a semipro hurler himself, knew all too well what thousands of Little Leaguers have had to painfully learn: nothing shreds a tender adolescent arm quite as effectively as throwing breaking balls. Mullany set about trying to save the boys' shoulders and elbows by creating a ball that would curve and bend on its own.

His original medium was an unexpected one: a hard plastic ball that served as packaging for Coty perfume. After having the boys experiment with various designs, Mullany hit on the Wiffle Ball we now know and love.

What's with the name?

Like a lot of baseball fans, Mullany's son and his friends referred to strikeouts as "whiffs." Since the new invention made knee-buckling curveballs a breeze to throw, pitchers started racking up the punchouts. Mullany named the product the Wiffle Ball to honor its strikeout-friendly breaks.

Why no "h" if the ball is named after whiffs?

The Mullanys allegedly nixed the "h" to save money if they ever had to buy a sign for their fledgling enterprise.

How did the Mullanys advertise their product?

For years the Mullany family marketed their Wiffle wares using pictures of star big leaguers like Ted Williams and Pete Rose on the packaging. So did the Splendid Splinter and Charlie Hustle like to play with the darting plastic ball on their days off? Not necessarily. The Mullanys later explained in interviews that doing actual photo shoots with the players would have been too pricey, so they just negotiated with players' agents and then used any old photograph. The good news: this means you might have stood a chance against Whitey Ford in Wiffle Ball.

What makes it break and spin?

It's a pretty simple concept even if you're not a physicist. The side of the ball without the holes cut into it obviously has greater surface area than the other half. Thanks to this difference in surface area, a larger amount of atmospheric pressure acts on the hole-free side, which makes the pitch curve towards the holes.

What about scuffs?

Throwing a pristine Wiffle Ball is easy. Getting the desired break on one that's been out in the yard for a while is more of a challenge. All bets are off regarding the aforementioned physics once the ball gets knicked, cut, and otherwise scuffed after taking a few solid whacks off the trusty yellow bat. In fact, if a ball is scuffed or cut in just the right way, all of the physics of the curves and breaks can be reversed; the pitch will actually curve away from the holes.

As you might guess, competitive players who are looking for an edge go to great lengths to "damage" their balls in just the right way to make their pitches really dance. They'll scuff the ball with sandpaper, stomp on it, even heat it up in a microwave to subtly change its surface. According to a 2002 article in The Atlantic, competitive players are allowed to do anything short of changing the molecular structure of a ball's plastic to achieve the desired effect.

Wait, competitive Wiffle Ball?

Yup. Since the mid-1990s, adult Wiffle Ball leagues have been popping up around the country, and some of them are pretty serious. They even meet in annual competitions like the Wiffle Up! Three on Three World Tour, which pays out thousands of dollars to the winning teams.

How does competitive Wiffle Ball work?

This came as a bit of a surprise to us since we're used to playing Wiffle Ball like normal baseball with lighter equipment. However, some tournaments use altered rules that remove baserunning from the equation. Instead, a batted ball is assigned a value—single, double, etc.—based on where it lands on the field of play. Some number of "outfielders" try to catch the balls on the fly, and the ones that drop for hits advance whatever "runners" were already on base.

Other tournaments work more like traditional baseball and allow steals, bunts, and other strategic maneuvering.

Are these guys toting the classic yellow plastic bat?

Not quite. They're using equipment that you can't just pick up for a few bucks in the toy aisle of any drugstore. Instead, they come to the plate armed with bats made from aluminum, carbon fiber, fiberglass, or super-hardened plastic. You can pick one up if you want to dominate the game at your next company picnic, but grabbing that glory won't be cheap. Moonshot Bats' top-of-the-line SpectraCarb Enforcer goes for around $200.

What's competitive whiffing look like?

Here's a look at video from one competitive league. The movement on some of these pitches is insane even by Wiffle standards:

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]