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4 Cases of All-Star Voter Fraud

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When Major League Baseball announced the early vote leaders for the 2015 All-Star Game, something seemed...off. Of the nine available starting positions for the American League, eight first-place spots were held by Kansas City Royals players. If this stands, Angels outfielder Mike Trout will be the only starter for the American League all-stars without a "KC" on his hat.

While many people were quick to call "fraud," Major League Baseball came out and said the results are on the level. This marks the first year that voting is held completely online, and each person is allowed to cast up to 35 ballots. Kansas City fans have taken advantage of this more than their rivals, meaning the secret to their team's dominance on this front is no more complicated than hitting "send" over and over again.

Although the very nature of all-star voting invites trickery, All-Star Game lore is littered with examples of particularly egregious and actual frauds. Here are a few of our favorites.

1. The 1957 Redlegs Become an All-Star Team

cincinnati-redlegs.jpgFans of baseball history would probably know what to expect on a National League All-Star starting roster from the 1950s. Willie Mays and Hank Aaron will be patrolling the outfield, right? Not if the fans had their say in the 1957 game's starters. When the votes were tallied for the game at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, the NL's starting roster included Cardinals first baseman Stan Musial and seven members of the Cincinnati Redlegs. Sure, the Redlegs had a potent offense that included future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, but were they almost an entire All-Star team?

Of course not. You have to give the people of Cincinnati credit for one of the most well-organized All-Star campaigns in history, though. Since all of the voting was done on paper, the Cincinnati Enquirer printed filled-out ballots and distributed them with newspapers. All fans needed to do was gather some copies of the pre-marked ballots and turn them in. Rumors swirled that bars in Cincinnati wouldn't serve customers without the patron first filling out a ballot. A commissioner's investigation supposedly learned that over half of the votes cast for the National League's roster originated in Cincinnati.

Sensing something was seriously amiss, Commissioner Ford C. Frick quickly stepped in to rectify the situation. He booted Redlegs outfielder Wally Post from the team entirely and moved Gus Bell to the bench. In their places, Mays and Aaron got starting nods in the outfield. Frick went one step further, too; he stripped the fans of their all-star voting rights entirely. From 1958 to 1970, managers and players chose the rosters with no input from fans.

2. Hacker Gets Behind Nomar

nomar-si.jpgAs the Web spread, the need for those annoying paper ballots where you knock out the chad with your pencil tip started to wane. Tons of fans enjoyed the relative simplicity of sitting down at their computer and casting a ballot or two. Or, in the case of computer programmer and Red Sox fan Chris Nandor in 1999, several thousand. With then-beloved Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra trailing Derek Jeter in the AL voting, Nandor took matters into his own hands. He whipped up a little computer program in the programming language Perl that could inundate Major League Baseball's online ballot with votes for Sox players. Within minutes, Nandor cast over 25,000 ballots for Nomar and fellow Sox like Scott Hatteberg and Jose Offerman. MLB eventually figured out Nandor's tomfoolery and disallowed his votes. That didn't matter to Nandor, though; Garciaparra ended up getting enough votes to start the game.

3. Vote for Rory

During the 2007 NHL season, hockey fan Steve Schmid had the idea that it would be fun to see a non-star play in the All-Star Game. He wanted to find just an average old hockey player and try to vote him in. He chose Rory Fitzpatrick, a journeyman defenseman who had enjoyed a long, if fairly unremarkable, career. Since all of the all-star voting was online, it seemed easy to start a grass-roots movement behind Fitzpatrick. And it was. On the strength of the website voteforrory.com and a series of funny YouTube videos endorsing his candidacy, Fitzpatrick's vote total surged. The people were finally getting their say!

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Actually, the people and a clever computer program were getting their say, and the computer program was doing most of the heavy lifting. After the debacle of Nandor's voting spree in 1999, leagues had started to crack down on vote hacking, but as usual, the hackers were one or two steps ahead. The NHL tried to ward off fraud using CAPTCHA to verify each vote as coming from a human user, but the league only used a handful of phrases in its verification. Each phrase had an easily identifiable file name, so hackers were able to build the Rory Vote-o-Matic, a program that could automatically cast thousands of write-in ballots for Fitzpatrick while still making CAPTCHA happy.

Ultimately, Fitzpatrick finished in third place in the voting behind Scott Niedermayer and Nicklas Lidstrom, so he didn't make the All-Star Game. However, he received an impressive 550,177 votes, and some observers, including Daniel Engber of Slate, thought maybe the NHL monkeyed with the vote totals to keep Fitzpatrick at home.

4. The WNBA Revels in "Punch Parties"

If anyone ever tells you the WNBA doesn't have any fans, show the 2007 all-star voting numbers. Thousands and thousands of votes were cast for various WNBA stars, and you should be able to prove just how beloved the WNBA is. Thanks to the always-intrepid investigative work of Dan Steinberg of the D.C. Sports Bog, though, you can look beyond the numbers. Steinberg picked up on a piece from the Detroit Shock's website advertising a "Punch Party" in which fans would come together to punch Detroit players' names on all-star ballots. Fans who punched 15 ballots were given the chance to meet and get autographs from Deanna Nolan, and filling out 100 ballots got them the right to meet Kara Braxton and head coach Bill Laimbeer. Everyone who filled out ballots got entries into a raffle for Shock memorabilia.

While teams usually encourage their fans to vote early and often, it's tough to find much precedent for outright bribery to get them to do so. Whatever your stance on the tactic, it worked: Nolan, Braxton, and Shock forward Cheryl Ford all got starting nods for the game.

A version of this story was originally published in 2008.

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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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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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