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How Monopoly Helped Defend The Free World

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by Brian McMahon

This article appeared in the November-December 2007 issue of mental_floss. Pick up a copy wherever brilliant (or lots of) magazines are sold. To subscribe, click here.

During World War II, the British secret service hatched a master plan to smuggle escape gear to captured Allied soldiers inside Germany. Their secret weapon? Monopoly boxes. The original notion was simple enough: Find a way to sneak useful items into prison camps in an unassuming form. But the idea to use Monopoly came from a series of happy coincidences, all of which started with maps.

Smooth As Silk

Maps are harder to smuggle than you might think. They fall apart when wet, and they make a lot of noise when unfolded. Allied officials feared paper maps might draw the attention of German troops, so they turned to an unlikely source for help—silk. Not only would silk maps hold up in all kinds of weather, but they'd also come with the life-saving benefit of being whisper quiet.

To produce these silent maps, the Brits turned to John Waddington Ltd., a company that had recently perfected the process of printing on silk and was already manufacturing silk escape maps for British airmen to carry. What else was Waddington known for? You guessed it—being the licensed manufacturer of Monopoly outside the United States.

Suddenly, the popular board game seemed like the perfect way to get supplies inside German-run POW camps. At the time, the Nazis were hard-pressed to get provisions to their own troops, much less to the Allied soldiers they'd captured. Wishing to hide this less-than-stellar upholding of the Geneva Convention, they happily welcomed Red Cross aid packages for POWs. So throwing Monopoly games into the care kits along with food and clothing was met with little scrutiny. Monopoly was already a well-known game throughout Europe, and the German guards saw it as the perfect way for their detainees to remain occupied for hours.

Community Chest

MonoMan.jpgIn 1941, the British Secret Service approached Waddington with its master plan, and before long, production of a "special edition" Monopoly set was underway. For the top-secret mission, the factory set aside a small, secure room—unknown to the rest of its employees—where skilled craftsmen sat and painstakingly carved small niches and openings into the games' cardboard boxes. Along with the standard thimble, car, and Scotty dog, the POW version included additional "playing" pieces, such as a metal file and a magnetic compass—all neatly concealed in the game's box. Even better, some of the Monopoly money was real. Actual German, Italian, and French currency was placed underneath the play money for escapees to use for bribes. Also, because of its collaboration with the International Red Cross, Waddington could track which sets would be delivered to which camps, meaning escape maps specific to the area could be hidden in each game set. Allied soldiers and pilots headed to the front lines were told to look for the special edition game if they were captured. The identifying mark to check for? A red dot in the corner of the Free Parking space.

Get Out of Jail Free

By the end of the war, it's estimated that more than 35,000 Allied POWs had escaped from German prison camps. And while there's no way to set an exact figure on it, more than a few of those escapees certainly owe their breakout to the classic board game.

But despite its brave and noble role in all of it, Monopoly's heroic war deeds would go unrecognized for decades. Strict secrecy about the plan was maintained during the war, not only so that the British could continue using the game to help POWs, but also because Waddington feared a targeted reprisal by German bombers. After the war, all remaining sets were destroyed, and everyone involved in the plan, including the escaped prisoners, were told to keep quiet. In the event of another large-scale war, Allied officials also wanted to make sure the seemingly innocent board game could go back into action.

Uncle Pennybags Goes Behind the Iron Curtain

Believe it or not, it wasn't long before Monopoly found itself in the middle of yet another international conflict—this time defending itself from Communist leaders in Russia.

Being that Monopoly is essentially a game in which one player gets rich at the expense of others becoming poor, Soviet officials had long seen the board game as an overt symbol of capitalistic frivolity and greed. So, as its popularity soared, Communists took more and more efforts to curb the enthusiasm. Cuba, the U.S.S.R., and other Eastern Bloc countries outlawed the game for fear it would corrupt the public with positive notions about a free-market economy. Soviet leaders even tried coming up with their own Marxist-themed spin-off games designed to highlight the virtues of frugality. The title of one such knockoff from Communist-era Hungary loosely translated to "Save," while another in Russia had a name that roughly meant "Manage."

But bans and spin-offs couldn't hold down the individualistic drive of the human spirit. Monopoly became an underground success, secretly coveted and played behind the Iron Curtain as a way of escaping the drudgery of Soviet life. It wasn't until 1987, four years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Monopoly was allowed to be legally sold there.

Today, Monopoly is licensed in more than 80 countries, and no fewer than 200 spin-off versions exist. Of course, playing it in the cozy confines of your living room, it's easy to take for granted that there was a time when, to many, Monopoly was a lot more than just a game.

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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WORLD WAR 1
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