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Jose Bautista via Instagram

Baseball's Golden Ticket: The MLB Lifetime Pass

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Jose Bautista via Instagram

The first man to ever receive a lifetime pass good for any Major League Baseball game in the country never once used it.

In acknowledgment of his status as the nation's leader, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (NAPBL) gave President Theodore Roosevelt a card granting him entry to any field he desired. The president, who was fond of combative sports like boxing and football, openly disliked the plodding game, and it’s unlikely he ever crossed a turnstile with the pass in hand.

Plenty of others have, though. Since Roosevelt was presented with a pass in 1907, hundreds of major league players, umpires, coaches, and staff have received a “golden ticket,” good for free admission to any of the MLB’s 30 stadiums—with a few asterisks.

“It’s a recognition program,” Phyllis Merhige, Major League Baseball's senior vice president of club relations, tells mental_floss. “It’s for anyone with eight years in uniform or 25 years in the front office.”

The pass—once paper and leather-bound, now a gold-covered alloy—entitles the recipient to enter any regular-season game of his or her choosing, along with one guest. Stadiums have instructions on recognizing the pass at their press or VIP windows. (You don’t need to call in advance.) Seating can be determined by each ball club, but it’s not likely you’ll be finding yourself behind home plate during a playoff game; the pass isn’t valid for postseason attendance.

Merhige and a colleague, Katy Feeney, handle distribution of the passes. At the start of each season, they both get a list of American and National League players who could become eligible during the year. Merhige tries to hand the passes to players as they come through MLB’s New York headquarters while in town for Yankee Stadium or Citi Field games; other times, they’ll be forwarded through a team’s public relations staff.

“Players will sometimes call the union office looking for them,” Merhige says. “A few think they’ve put in the eight years and think it’s gotten misplaced.” It usually hasn’t; they just happen to be a few days short of the minimum.

Vada Pinson Jr. via Facebook

While the pass may have been wasted on Roosevelt, it was a few decades before players were able to relish the opportunity. In 1935, Ford Frick, then-president of the National League, gave former Cincinnati Red Stockings shortstop George Wright a pass that was one part generosity and one part public relations: the gift made headlines.

He also gave one to Babe Ruth. Although Ruth played the majority of his career in the American League, the AL had no such pass, and it seemed absurd that the “Bambino” couldn’t walk into his own association’s games. That changed in 1936, when gold and silver passes began circulating for players with between 10 and 20 years of service in either league.

“There were about 400 passes by the end of 1936,” John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, says. “The perks were the same, but men with 20 years got the gold pass.”

Thorn isn’t sure when the tenure limit was lowered to eight years, though he suspects the leagues just “wanted to give out more passes rather than fewer.” And while it’s greatly appreciated—José Bautista recently Instagrammed his newly-acquired pass—Thorn believes many don’t use it since players have existing relationships that allow them to get into games regardless. “It’s more of an honor,” he says. “Most can afford to pay the $20 ticket. I would guess most put it in a drawer.”

Not every pass has been circulated among presidents or MLB alumni. The league has often recognized great accomplishments—Charles Lindbergh got one after crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, while 24 astronauts got passes in 1965—and great hardship in global incidents.

“The first time we honored victims was in the Pueblo incident, which was a Naval ship that was impounded in North Korea,” Merhige says. The USS Pueblo crept into foreign waters in 1968 on an intelligence reconnaissance mission. After being captured, 82 crew members were imprisoned, and many were tortured. They were released after 335 days.

Granting the Pueblo crew some small token of appreciation led to MLB offering the pass as a symbol of gratitude to returning POWs in Vietnam and, most notably, the 52 Americans held during the Iranian hostage crisis: they had been held captive at a U.S. embassy in Tehran from 1979 to 1981. (Their rescue was dramatized in the film Argo.) Though not the exact pass given to players, it offers the same benefits—admission to any baseball stadium in the country.

Whether the ticket is given to a player or a national hero, there’s no transferring it. “I’ve had people telling me their grandfather had one and they just found it,” Merhige says. “They ask if they can use it. They can’t.”

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]