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11 Little Quirks in Baseball's Early Rules

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Getty Images

Baseball has been part of American culture and consciousness since the mid-1700s. Even though it's a classic game, it's still showing signs of evolution. For instance, some of the rules of yore seem particularly quirky compared to the modern game.

1. In the earliest version of base ball—two words back then—games were not nine innings long. Instead, teams played until one side scored 21 runs, which, at the time, were called “aces.”

2. Before 1872, pitchers had to throw underhand. This was largely because their purpose wasn’t to get outs but to serve up pitches to be put in play. Batters would even request where they wanted a ball to be pitched for a better chance of making contact. Eventually, pitchers realized they could give their teams a competitive advantage if they made things a little less easy on the batter, and the rules caved to accommodate overhand motions.

3. Originally, a hitter wasn’t just out if the ball was caught in the air; he was also out if it was caught on the first bounce. If it sounds like this makes the game too easy for the outfielders, consider that using gloves didn't become the norm until the 1890s. This practice was so entrenched that after the Knickerboxers suggested changing it, it took several years of heated debate to get the rule changed. And even after it was changed for balls in play, it persisted for several decades when dealing with pop ups in foul territory.

4. Before there was a whole crew of umpires monitoring games, the home plate umpire was allowed to confer with spectators, who may have had a better view, before issuing a ruling.

5. At first, there was no such thing as a called strike. There were only swinging strikes. When the called strike idea was introduced, it came with some caveats—the first pitch couldn’t be a called strike and the umpire had to warn a batter that a certain pitch is liable to be called a strike before beginning to do so.

6. Similarly, only every third “unfair” pitch was called a ball. So while the rules dictated the batter take a base after three balls, in practice the pitcher got nine pitches out of the strike zone before surrendering a walk.

7. In the early days, outfielders could put out base runners not just by tagging but also by throwing the ball at them before they reached the base. The practice, known as “soaking,” “patching,” or “plugging,” was thought to be necessary to the manliness of the game.

8. What we now think of as the “umpire” was originally called the referee, who proceeded over the game along with two “umpires,” one from each team who made appeals on their players’ behalves.

9. In the mid-1800s, home plate was a circular base, 12 inches in diameter. At first it was made of iron painted white and later marble or stone.

10. For a time in the late 1800s, hitters were allowed to use bats that were flat on one side, like a paddle. This made swatting at balls easier but they had a tendency to splinter dangerously.

11. In the early 20th century, you couldn’t get credit for a walk-off home run if the go-ahead run was already on base. That is to say, the game ended as soon as the lead run scored for the home team in the ninth. So if your home team was down by one with men on second and third and you hit the ball over the fence, the game ended as soon as the runner on second scored and you would be credited with a double. Babe Ruth hit plenty of homers in his day, but the Sultan of Swat would tell you, he would have credit for even more if not for this rule.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Opening Ceremony
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:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


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]