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Lucas Adams // All illustrations by Lucas Adams

7 Insane Sports and Games That Were Too Crazy to Last

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Lucas Adams // All illustrations by Lucas Adams

Modern sports fans have a lot to be thankful for. Whatever your preference, there's likely a television channel just a click away catering to it. Professional Croatian hockey, college volleyball, darts—you name it, you can find it. Some sports, however, won't be featured on your cable guide.

Be they archaically crazy or crazily archaic, many games of yore are preserved only by uncovered rulebooks or historical descriptions. Edward Brooke-Hitching's book Fox Tossing and Other Forgotten and Dangerous Sports, Pastimes, and Games catalogs some of history's most bonkers competitions, a few of which we list below. While we don't advise challenging your friends to a round of hnútukast, you'll at least know how to play should you have to.

1. BALLOON-JUMPING

In the 1920s, as air travel was being refined, a strange aeronautical pastime had a brief day in the sun. Balloon-jumping hinted at a future where humans would be free from the surly bounds of gravity, and all that was needed was a personal balloon filled with either hydrogen or helium (“the latter was preferred by most of the aeronauts,” Brooke-Hitching writes, “because it allowed them to light up a cigarette midflight”).

First invented by the U.S. Army, these personal, or “hopper,” balloons were simple to use: “Altitude was gained simply by leaping into a mild to mid-strength wind … unlike hot air balloons, there was no need to shed ballast or vent gas, because it was carefully ensured that the weight of the balloonist slightly exceeded the pull of the balloon.” With a leap, balloonists—who would either hang from ropes or sit on a bench suspended from the balloon—could float effortlessly across long distances.

“How helpful this sort of thing would be,” a 1927 article in the Joplin News Herald read. “We could dispense with elevators and enter our offices on the third or fourth floors by merely leaping in the window and crawling in.”

Besides revolutionizing transportation, balloon-jumping showed potential as the sport of the future. As a 1927 issue of Science and Invention predicted, “Races with balloons of this sort would undoubtedly be great fun and the danger would be very slight. Obstacle races of course would be the most fun because you then bring the advantages of the balloons into full play.”

However, personal ballooning never reached ubiquity, and its sporting promise was quickly dashed. It turns out that attaching yourself to a balloon and launching into the wind happens to be rather dangerous. This became evident as more and more people actually tried balloon-jumping. In 1927, "Brainy" Dobbs, a highly trained Royal Air Force parachutist and balloon-jumping pioneer, was performing in front of a crowd when he attempted to clear a set of elevated electrical wires. When his feet got caught in the live power lines, he tried to untangle himself and was instantly blown to bits. Needless to say, killing a decorated serviceman was not great PR for balloon-jumping, and the practice quickly died off.

2. BASEBALL WITH CANNONS

The purveyors of baseball are notorious for their cultish attachment to tradition, which is part of what makes the game’s brief flirtation with heavy artillery so intriguing.

In the late 19th century, British mathematician Charles Howard Hinton was teaching at Princeton when he decided to turn his scientific mind to the baseball diamond. Specifically, he aimed to solve the problem of pitchers’ sore arms. His solution was to use a cannon that fired baseballs.

His first attempt worked, but it was pretty straight-forward, and didn’t put curve on the ball like a human pitcher’s natural throwing motion. To rectify this, Brooke-Hitching writes, “[Hinton strung] a high-tensile wire across the front of the barrel, but that merely resulted in the field being sprayed with deadly pieces of high-tensile wire.”

Further updating his invention, Hinton put “small rubber pincers” in front of the barrel that “spun the ball upon its release.” It worked, and the future of baseball was set … until it wasn’t. “The cannon terrified the batters,” Brooke-Hitching writes. “The gunpowder blast had a tendency to cook and harden the leather surface of the ball … the machine also took a while to reload, which slowed the pace of both the practices and the matches in which it was introduced as a novelty feature.”

Explosions are cool, but baseball is slow enough as it is. Thus, the cannon-pitcher was wheeled away forever, never to see the mound again.

3. BOXING ON HORSEBACK

American boxer Bobby Dobbs made a name for himself fighting in Europe, but when the sport’s popularity dried up on the continent in the 1910s, he took it upon himself to think of a way to breathe some new life into it. His solution: Put the boxers on horseback.

It was just like normal boxing, except for the equine aspect. “A fighter was declared the loser if he was thrown from his steed by punch and was unable to remount within ten seconds,” Brooke-Hitching writes. The bouts didn’t produce much actual fighting, though, as the boxers found it difficult to both control their horses and square up for haymakers. Despite being briefly popular in Germany, boxing on horseback never caught on, much to the delight of the horses, one imagines.

4. DWILE FLONKING

This rather unique and deceptively complicated game was played in Norfolk in the 1960s and '70s. According to Brooke-Hitching, a round of dwile flonking entailed “locals gather[ing] in a large group, danc[ing] to an accordion, and hit[ting] each other in the face with beer-soaked rags.”

Rule changes were frequent but rarely remembered due to the exorbitant alcohol consumption that went along with the sport. Still, the gist of the game stayed the same: “The flonking team nominated a member of their rank to be the flonker. He or she was then encircled by the nonflonking team, who joined hands (in the style of hokey pokey) and danced … The flonker, meanwhile, was armed with a ‘drivler’—usually a broom handle with a rag attached to the tip. He then dipped his driveler into a mop bucket filled with beer … When the music stopped, he lashed out at the nearest player with his driveler in an attempt to flock him and score points.”

The points system is where it really gets confusing, and no one was ever quite sure who got how many points for what. One thing that was codified was that "anyone who was sober at the end of the game also lost a point." 

Dwile Flonking became the subject of a few newspaper articles, and the game even appeared on the television program The Eamonn Andrews Show in 1967. Its profile rose to the point where overseas sports fans wrote to the ad-hoc governing body (the Waveney Valley Dwile Flonking Association) to ask where they could obtain a rule book.

After its brief brush with fame, Dwile Flonking faded into obscurity—but it was not totally forgotten. In 2010, a group of enterprising Dwile Flonking enthusiasts tried to organize the first-ever world championships, at the Dog Inn pub in Ludham, Great Yarmouth. The event never made it past the planning stages, however. It was canceled after the Norfolk District Council "decided that it contravened recently instituted speed-drinking laws."

5. EEL-PULLING

This medieval game lasted in Holland until the 19th century. To play, a wire was strung across a river or channel, and the biggest, slimiest eel available was hooked at its center. Players would pilot boats beneath the slithering fish, and the first to yank it down was crowned the winner. Palingtrekken, as the game is called in Dutch, was a popular spectator sport, and crowds eagerly watched to see participants fall into the water as they desperately tried to rip the eel off its hook.

Seen even in the 19th century as cruel, eel-pulling was banned in Holland by the 1880s. It was still popular and frequently played, however, and a policeman’s attempt to stop a round of palingtrekken in 1886 sparked a violent riot in Amsterdam. Angered citizens threw stones at police, and the authorities responded with gunfire. “In the brief ensuing melee,” Brooke-Hitching writes, “twenty-six civilians lost their lives, some of whom were indoors hiding from the fighting; a further 136 were wounded.”

6. KOTTABOS

An ancient Greek drinking game, kottabos required skill, panache, and a whole lot of vino. Players would flick wine from their drinking cups at targets, which were saucers floating in water or stacked on top of each other. Directing the alcoholic globules meant having supple wrist control, as the participants were expected to “maintain a reclining position at the dining table" while playing. Clearly, kottabos is the perfect sport.

7. BONE-THROWING

Known as hnútukast, this Viking sport was described in a 14th-century text, and the rules are refreshingly simple: 1. Two players line up across from each other. 2. Each takes a turn throwing a bone as hard as he can at his opponent. 3. Repeat until someone gets seriously hurt.

All illustrations by Lucas Adams.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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© Nintendo
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Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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