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From Hippo Vaughn to Shoeless Joe Jackson: The Origins of 17 Classic Baseball Nicknames

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Baseball's regular season is winding down, and this year's tight pennant races are sure to generate quite a bit of excitement. There's not question, thought, that they'd be just a tiny bit more exciting if today's players had the same kind of great nicknames old-time players did. Here are the stories behind a few great nicknames from baseball's early days:

Hippo Vaughn

Vaughn is best remembered for two things: being the losing pitcher in baseball's only "double no-hitter," a 1917 game in which Vaughn pitched nine hitless innings for the Chicago Cubs only to be matched by Reds hurler Fred Toney and eventually lose by giving up a run in the top of the 10th inning. Few historians can forget the lumbering 6'4", 215-pound frame that earned him the nickname "Hippo."

Mysterious Walker

Frederick Mitchell Walker was surely one of the best athletes of the early 20th century. He starred in baseball, basketball, and football at the University of Chicago before starting to pitch for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League in 1910. He left off his last name when identifying himself in San Francisco, so fans only knew him as Frederick Mitchell.

When he pitched extremely well in his 11 appearances with the club that season, fans became quite interested in the origins of their ace. Reporters started calling him "Mysterious Mitchell," and even after he revealed his true last name, they simply repurposed the nickname and called him "Mysterious Walker."

Death to Flying Things Ferguson

Bob Ferguson first caught baseball fans' attention in the late 1860s with the Brooklyn Atlantics. Although he only batted .271 for his career and only had one real standout season (1878 with the Chicago Cubs), he earned the nickname "Death to Flying Things" for his unprecedented prowess as a fielder.

Bald Billy Barnie

Aside from being a lovely piece of alliteration, this one accurately described the dome of the player of the 1870s and manager of the 1880s and '90s.

Egyptian Healy

John J. Healy pitched from 1885 until 1892, but his nickname is more memorable than anything he did on the diamond. It came from the simple fact that he hailed from Cairo, IL.

Brewery Jack Taylor

Brewery Jack Taylor pitched for several teams throughout the 1890s, most notably six seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies. He is best remembered for vociferously arguing with umpires and for throwing back lots of suds between games. Hence his nickname.

Shoeless Joe Jackson

According to Jackson, he got his famous nickname well before he reached the Major Leagues. He was playing in a game as a teenager when a new pair of cleats began giving him a blister. Rather than suffer through the rest of the game in ill-fitting shoes, Jackson simply went around the bases in his stocking feet. Opposing fans heckled him for being "a shoeless son of a gun," and the name followed Jackson.

Kiki Cuyler

"Kiki" may not seem like a very tough nickname for one of the venerable outfielders of the 1920s and '30s, but it's decidedly more intimidating than his real name, Hazen Shirley Cuyler. Cuyler supposedly got the nickname early in his career when he stuttered pronouncing his own last name, and the moniker stuck.

Lip Pike

Pike became a national sensation when he joined the Philadelphia Athletics in 1866; he had both blazing speed and astounding power. In fact, Pike was so good that he was later revealed to be arguably the first professional baseball player—the Athletics paid him a princely $20 a week for his services. "Lip" isn't a traditional nickname, either. It's short for his first name, Lipman.

Silk O'Loughlin

Francis O'Loughlin was an American League umpire from 1902 to 1918, but his nickname didn't come from his smooth and consistent strike zone. Rather, he picked up the nickname "Silk" as a child because he had particularly fine hair.

Fatty Briody

Here's one that's easy to believe: a guy named "Fatty" played catcher. The 5'8", 190-pound Briody earned renown as an ace defensive catcher throughout the 1880s.

Chicken Wolf

The right fielder for the Louisville Eclipse and Louisville Colonels of the 1880s allegedly got his nickname from teammate Pete Browning when they were playing semi-pro ball. Even though a manager had told the boys not to eat much before the first pitch, Jimmy Wolf gorged himself on stewed chicken before a game, then played terribly in the field. Browning taunted him by calling him "Chicken," and the unflattering nickname stuck.

Turkey Mike Donlin

Donlin racked up five seasons with a batting average over .300 and won a World Series with the Giants in 1905. Apparently he had a red neck and an odd walk, though, so teammates gave him a nickname he loathed: Turkey Mike.

Brickyard Kennedy

Brickyard Kennedy won 187 games in the Majors, but at the turn of the 20th century, even the best players needed second jobs in the offseason. William Park Kennedy worked at a brickyard, so a nickname wasn't too tough to find.

Pickles Dillhoefer

Maybe this one is obvious to you, but it took me a minute to figure it out. The catcher, who spent time with the Cubs, Phillies, and Cardinals between 1917 and 1921, got his nickname as a twist on the "Dill" in his last name.

Piano Legs Hickman

Slugger Charlie Hickman was also known as "Cheerful Charlie" for his demeanor, but most historians remember him as Piano Legs Hickman, a name that described the thick legs he needed to move his 215-pound frame around the bases.

Iron Man McGinnity

Joseph Jerome McGinnity pitched his way into the Hall of Fame by winning 246 games between 1899 and 1908. Many people mistakenly think that McGinnity got his "Iron Man" moniker from his tendency to pitch both games of a doubleheader, but, like Brickyard Kennedy, the nickname came from his offseason job: McGinnity worked in a foundry.

And some other greats for which we can't find explanations...

Chime in on the comments if you know any of their origins!
- Cannonball Titcomb (He threw a no-hitter in 1890!)
- Cinders O'Brien
- Live Oak Taylor
- Wimpy Quinn
- Icicle Reeder
- Pop-boy Smith

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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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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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