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9 Phrases the Cubs Gave Baseball

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The Cubs are headed back to the World Series for the first time since 1945. They may not have won a World Series title in a very long time (as announcer Jack Brickhouse once said, "Any team can have a bad century"), but during that dry spell they have been enriching the language of baseball. Here are nine phrases that trace back to the Cubs.

1. WRECKING CREW

The phrase “wrecking crew” has a life outside of baseball in salvage, music, and football, but in baseball, according to The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, it was first applied as a term for a group of heavy hitters in reference to the 1912 Chicago Cubs.

2. TINKER TO EVERS TO CHANCE 

In 1910, New York Evening Mail columnist Franklin P. Adams wrote a poem called “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” about the double-play damage the Cubs trio of shortstop Joe Tinker, second baseman Johnny Evers, and first baseman Frank Chance had inflicted on the Giants:

These are the saddest of possible words:
"Tinker to Evers to Chance."
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,
Tinker and Evers and Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double—
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
"Tinker to Evers to Chance."

The phrase “Tinker to Evers to Chance” became a popular way to remark on any well-executed, coordinated achievement. For example, according to a 2010 Chicago Tribune article, “a 2003 motion picture ad for Golden Globe-winner The Hours, starring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore, proclaims that ‘Kidman to Meryl to Moore' is ‘the acting version of baseball's fabled 'Tinker to Evers to Chance.'” 

3. LET’S PLAY TWO

The beloved “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks, known for his cheerful disposition, used to express his love of the game by saying “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame. Let’s play two.” As Scott Simon said after Banks died at the beginning of this year, “It was a phrase he used to remind himself and other players that whatever their complaints, they got to play a game for a living, and hear the cheers of strangers. It was a reminder to all of us to cherish life and the chance to have work that gives enjoyment to others.” 

4. BLEACHER BUM

The Dickson Baseball Dictionary defines a bleacher bum as “One of a horde of boisterous, often shirtless fans who inhabit the bleachers.” In 1966, a group of 10 devoted fans at Wrigley Field proudly declared themselves “bleacher bums,” and their wild, inebriated antics became part of the attraction of a day at the ballpark.

5. HOLY COW!

Long time Cubs announcer Harry Caray was not the first to exclaim “Holy cow!” but all the same, he made it his own trademark cry. It’s the title of his autobiography, where he explains that he trained himself to say “holy cow” early in his career because “it was the only exclamation I could come up with that didn’t involve profanity.” 

6. IT MIGHT BE, IT COULD BE, IT IS

Another Harry Carayism, the rising excitement of “It might be … it could be … IT IS!” is the perfect send off for a home run ball or any other triumph at the end of a tension-filled moment.

7. WOO!

The single word “woo” does not come from Cubs baseball, but what we linguists might call “the extended ‘woo’ list construction,” perfected by superfan Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers, has undeniable Cubs pedigree. A typical example of the construction: “Cubs, woo! Love, woo! Cubs, woo! We’re number one, woo! Baseball, woo! Cubs, woo!”

8. THE FRIENDLY CONFINES

This nickname had been applied to other ballparks in the old days, but it only stuck to cozy, neighborhood Wrigley Field.

9. I DON’T CARE WHO WINS, AS LONG AS IT’S THE CUBS

In the 1940s and '50s, Cubs announcer Bert Wilson would often wax rhapsodic about the beautiful weather or the wonderful atmosphere at the game and conclude with “I don’t care who wins, as long as it’s the Cubs.” Fans of other teams or pursuits have since used the phrase, substituting their own choices for the ending, but none has felt the emotion behind it as deeply or sincerely as a Cubs fan.

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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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May 23, 2017
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