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A Brief History of Wiffle Ball

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Getty Images

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
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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