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5 Odd Balls

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Sure, you know your footballs, baseballs, tennis balls and basketballs. But what about the lesser-known balls? Let's take a closer look at some, er, odd balls now.

1. Jai Alai Balls

AKA: Pelota (Spanish for ball, duh)
Weight: 125g–140g
Let's get the ball rolling: Considered the most lethal ball of any sport, the pelota is 3/4 the size of a baseball, harder than a golf ball, and has been clocked at speeds in excess of 180 m.p.h. The Guinness Book of World Records calls it "the world's fastest ball." The pelota is constructed of hand wound Brazilian rubber with two hand-sown goatskin covers. Pelotas cost more than $150 each and must be re-covered after 15 minutes of play. No machine has ever been developed to construct an official pelota.

2. Qigong Balls


AKA: Worry balls, lotus balls, chiming balls, miracle balls, therapy balls
Made of: metal or stone
Size: 1 3/4 inches (small), 1 15/16 inches (medium) 2 3/16 inches (large)
Rock'n'Roll: Some balls have a sounding plate inside that makes them "sing" or chime when rolled or clinked
Ancient Chinese Secret: Around since the Ming Dynasty, these healing balls have many uses. Some believe that our ten fingers connect with the cranial nerves and vital organs. Plucking the balls with your fingers stimulates key points on the hand and releases vital energy. Some believe the orbs can prevent and cure hypertension. Others use them simply for exercise.

3. Skee-Balls


Made from: either smooth polished hardwood or heavy plastic
History: The game, skee-ball, was invented in 1909 by J. Dickinson Este in Philadelphia. The first alleys were sold to outdoor amusement parks and were 36 feet long! It was as much as test of strength as of skill. Today's arcade standard is ten feet, with most home games at eight feet.

4. Pinballs

Why are they called "pin" balls?The early version of what we now call pinball was actually called bagatelle. Players rolled balls up an inclined table and tried to knock down little pins for points.
Made of: Early pinballs were made of glass, like big marbles. When the game became "electrified" the standard steel pinball, measuring 1 1/16" in diameter, was born.

Tilt! The tilt mechanism was invented in 1934 as a direct answer to the problem of players physically lifting and shaking the games. The tilt debuted in a game called Advance made by Harry Williams.

5. Bocee Balls

Made of: While cheap bocce balls can be made out of wood, stone or metal, the most popular (and tournament approved) are made of hard plastic, similar to bowling balls or billiard balls
The other ball: is much smaller and called the pallino, or "the jack"; it's used for scoring
Meaning: From the Italian word boccia, which means "to bowl"

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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