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Where Does the Phrase “Hat-Trick” Come From?

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The puck recently dropped for the 2014 NHL playoffs, pitting the best North American clubs against each other for the chance to raise Lord Stanley’s coveted Cup. Getting there, of course, requires scoring goals—and some players are so on fire that they score three goals in a single game. This phenomenal feat is known as a “hat-trick,” a term used in a handful of sports to indicate three individual achievements in a given game. But where did the phrase come from, and what does scoring three goals in a game have to do with hats?  

The origins of the phrase don’t have anything to do with hockey at all. In fact, the first use of the term “hat trick” comes from a specific cricket match from 1858. Bowler H.H. Stephenson, playing for an all-England squad versus a team from Hallam, South Yorkshire, took three consecutive wickets at Hyde Park Cricket Grounds in Sheffield—meaning he hit the three wooden stakes behind the batter three consecutive times. A collection was held because of his outstanding feat and he was presented with a hat that was bought using the proceeds.

Just when the phrase made the jump to ice hockey and other sports is a matter of debate (the Online Etymology Dictionary says it's 1909, while other sources believe it didn't happen until the 1940s), and the exact source of the phrase being popularized is still fairly hazy. One Montreal haberdasher called “Henri Henri” claims they coined the phrase after they began rewarding all players who scored three goals during one game at the Montreal Forum with a free hat. Another claim comes from the Canadian city of Guelph, whose 1947 Junior-A team was sponsored by Biltmore Hats and dubbed the “Guelph Biltmore Mad Hatters.” As a marketing ploy to advertise its new style of fedora, the company would give away a brand new hat to any league player who scored three goals in a single game. 

The Hockey Hall of Fame, however, recognizes a similar story as the true origin of the phrase for hockey. When Chicago Blackhawks winger Alex Kaleta wandered into the Toronto haberdashery of owner Sammy Taft in January 1946 before a game with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Kaleta fell in love with a swanky new gray fedora on sale with a gray silk band around the top. Kaleta, however, had just returned to playing professional hockey after serving in the Canadian military during World War II, and didn’t have enough money, so Taft cut him a deal. If Kaleta could score three goals against the Maple Leafs at the game that night, he could come back to the shop and have the hat for free. Kaleta went on to score four goals in the game (Chicago wound up losing to Toronto 6-5) and got a free hat out of his on-ice feat. Taft would continue on with the “trick” and award a free hat to any player who scored three goals in a single game at Maple Leaf Gardens, and the phrase eventually evolved into the three-goal celebratory label we know today.

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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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May 23, 2017
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