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10 Obscure Rules from the World of Sports

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An obscure baseball rule made headlines recently when minor league baseballer Vinnie Catricala of the Midland RockHounds (the Oakland A's farm team) fell victim to a never-before invoked statute—he struck out after only one pitch.

It's good old rule 6.02(c), whereby the ump can call strikes on recalcitrant batters who step out of the batter's box and “refuse” to re-enter in a timely and sportsman-like manner. In Catricala's case, he took his sweet time arguing the strike call outside the chalk lines and was awarded two more strikes for his effort. Moral of the story: If you're going to go at it with the ump, make sure you're inside the batter's box. 

Good sportsmen (and women) play by the rules. Even the rules you've never heard of. Here are a few other obscure regulations that gave way to some remarkable calls in recent sports history.

1. Football: The Fair Catch Kick

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When a return man gives a fair catch signal, the player foregoes his opportunity to run back the ball in exchange for not being touched while trying to catch it. Usually, the receiving team then sends its offense onto the field to start a drive. They don't have to, though. If the receiving team asks for a fair catch kick, they can use the next play to attempt a free kick. These fair catch kicks are field goal attempts, but they're undefended. Rather than lining up on the line of scrimmage, the defense has to stand 10 yards downfield, and instead of having a long snapper fire the ball back to the holder, the holder simply starts the play holding the ball for the kicker.

Why would any team try for an uncontested field goal? Usually fair catch kicks only come at the ends of halves; if a team makes a fair catch with 0:00 showing on the clock, its captains can request a free kick, which gives them a chance (albeit a very slight one) to pick up a few points.

Still, it's fairly uncommon for a half to end with a punt or kickoff. Only a handful of fair catch kicks have been attempted in NFL history, and the last successful attempt came off the toe of Bears kick Mac Percival in 1968. Packers kicker Mason Crosby tried one at the end of the first half of a game against the Lions in 2008, but the 69-yard boot didn't quite make it.

2. Golf: The Towel Foul

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Good old golf rule 13.3 maintains that a golfer must not “build a stance.” Apparently, the only person who knew what that meant was a random golf fan in Iowa, who saw pro golfer Craig Stadler violate the statute on TV in 1987 at the Andy Williams Open that year, and called the oblivious Professional Golfer's Association to complain about it. The offense? Stadler put a towel down on the green to avoid getting his pants dirty as he took a hairy shot from his knees. Stadler didn't put the penalty down on his scorecard, and was later disqualified for submitting a falsely tallied card ... but only after the PGA officials realized it was a penalty in the first place, thanks to the nit-picky civilian.

3. Basketball: Block that Free Throw

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There's a reason they're called "free" throws. If a basketball player goaltends or attempts to block a freebie, he's probably a jerk, and he's definitely getting tagged with a technical foul. Goaltending a free throw is good for a T, but it can also be a strategic weapon. During a 2008 game against Georgia, much-reviled former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie was staring at a 3-point deficit with only a few ticks left on the clock at the end of a game. A Georgia player was about to shoot his second free throw, which Gillispie ordered Perry Stevenson to goaltend. The Cats drew the T, but Gillispie decided he'd rather gamble on Georgia missing both free throws for the technical to ensure that his team got the ball back. Like Gillispie's career in Lexington, the ploy was an epic failure, but it was worth a shot.

4. Fencing: The Filibuster

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A controversial ruling following a technical mishap during the women's epee competition at the London Olympics left loser Shin A-lam of South Korea stuck on the piste. She and her coaches launched an appeal refusing to accept the ruling that ultimately cost her a medal. Due to an International Fencing Federation bylaw [PDF], she had to remain on the piste while the appeal process was carried out. While not a rarely enforced bylaw, the fact that the appeal process took 75 excruciatingly long and tearful minutes, and that security had to forceably remove A-lam from the piste, makes it quite a unique circumstance.

5. Tennis: Hats off

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If your hat falls off in the middle of a match, your opponent can call for a let on the grounds that it's a hindrance (an illegal disturbance to the opposing player), which if granted will require the now hatless, offending party to replay the stroke. This happened to French tennis player Nathalie Dechy during a Round 2 match at Wimbledon in 2008. She was playing young Serbian star Ana Ivanovic in a heartbreakingly close match that was verging on three-and-a-half hours in length. It was a long and tight match, and the unseeded Dechy fired off a winning point just as her hat fell off. The ref called a let, negating the point, and Ivanovic was able to turn it around and end it with a win. 

6. Baseball: Substitute Baserunners

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Here's one from MLB's rules that came into play back in 2005. Red Sox infielder Tony Graffanino belted a homer with outfielder Gabe Kapler standing on first base. As the players did their home run trots, Kapler blew out his Achilles tendon rounding second base. Graffanino had to freeze a few paces behind his injured teammate; if he'd passed the downed man, the homer wouldn't have counted. Eventually, the umps determined that the Sox were entitled to substitute a baserunner for Kapler since he was already entitled to make the full run home.

7. Baseball: Nailing the Umps

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According to MLB's rule 5.09(g), if a pitched ball lodges in the umpire's or catcher's mask or paraphernalia and remains out of play, all runners advance one base.

8. Basketball: Non-Unsportsmanlike Technical Foul

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While the lengthy moniker leaves a little bit of a semantic question (does the “non” negate the “un-”?), this pro-hoops foul (and accompanying $500 fine) is called when an offensive player “deliberately” hangs on the hoop after a slam dunk. It's also called if a player shatters the backboard. And in the case of a Montana high school team in 2009, shattering the backboard (or causing damage to it in general) during pregame warmups is grounds for a forfeit. The boys team from Harlem High had to give up a divisional championship that year after a guard destroyed the backboard during the warmup, violating a no-pregame-shattering rule set by the Montana High School Association punishable by automatic forfeit.

9. Baseball: Taking a Plunk While Stealing Home

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What would happen if a pitcher threw at a baserunner who was trying to steal home? According to rule 5.09(h), if any legal pitch touches a runner who's trying to score, all runners advance.

10. Football: The Doug Flutie Drop-Kick

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More fun with the kicking game! In 2006, Patriots backup QB Doug Flutie did something strange in a game against the Miami Dolphins: He converted an extra point after a touchdown ... by drop-kicking the football. The Patriots lost, but Flutie got an A for effort with the first successful drop-kick for points since 1941, when Chicago Bears QB James “Scooter” McLean busted the move to beat the Giants in the championship.

The drop-kick conversion rule (Rule 3, section 8 of the NFL rulebook) allows a player to drop-kick the ball to convert an extra point, provided he's behind the line of scrimmage when he attempts it. It's a risky move, especially given the modern football's prolate spheroid shape, and thus is not often attempted or successful when attempted. The drop-kick rule was invented prior to 1934, when footballs were a little rounder.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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