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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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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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