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Trivial Pursuit Trivia

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During a game of Scrabble in December of 1979, Canadian journalists Chris Haney and Scott Abbott decided to create their own board game. They sketched out the basic concept in a single evening, and they doodled several game board designs before settling on a "ship's wheel" with six spokes leading to the center winner's circle. Keeping with the wheel theme, they also decided that the game tokens should be round and should double as "scorekeepers" "“ that is, the tokens should immediately reflect the player's status without having to refer to a separate score pad.

Putting a team together

trivia-teamHaney and Abbott had no prior retail experience, much less any knowledge of promoting and selling a board game, so they enlisted the help of Chris' brother, John, and an attorney friend, Ed Werner. In January 1980, the four formed Horn Abbot Ltd.; the company name was based on Chris Haney's nickname, "The Horn," and an abbreviated spelling of Scott's surname.


Once Horn Abbot was incorporated and actually started investigating the ins and outs of selling a board game, the partners realized that they needed about $75,000 to create a prototype game board, the necessary game pieces and the question cards. They enlisted the help of family members, friends and co-workers in order to raise the necessary capital, offering them shares of their company in exchange for their investment. A lot of folks naturally turned them down (how many of us have heard from friends and relatives with a "million dollar idea"?), but eventually they managed to convince 34 people to buy into their dream. Four years later, those 34 investors were each receiving five-digit dividend checks.

Designing on a budget

trivial-pursuitThe quirky, archaic images that gave the original Trivial Pursuit game board its unique character came from the mind of graphic designer Michael Wurstlin. Wurstlin was 18 years old and unemployed when Horn Abbot approached him to use his artistic expertise to create not only a game board, but also a logo and a design for the question cards. Wurstlin took the job because his unemployment insurance had run out and he desperately needed the $1,000 they offered him. His budget for the project was almost non-existent, which is why he turned to archival art books that provided free clip art.


When he turned in the finished product, Haney and Abbott asked whether he'd prefer five shares of stock in their company over the mere $1,000 they'd originally contracted for. Wurstlin only capitulated and took the stock after much cajoling of the "What are you, chicken?" variety. He earned enough from his investment to found Wurstlingroup, a very successful Toronto-based marketing company.

Keeping up with demand

game-piecesOne of the many problems Horn Abbot encountered when Trivial Pursuit began gaining popularity was manufacturing the components quickly enough to meet demand. In 1983, only one company in the U.S. had the special card stock (10 point Carolina Coated Bristol, covered with clay on both sides) used to print the question cards, and Federal Paper Board could only afford to dedicate 20% of their machine capacity to the Trivial Pursuit job, since at the time they also were the major supplier of the nation's cigarette cartons, record album covers and laundry detergent boxes. Delivery of completed games to distributors was often delayed as a result.


They had better luck with the injection molding company that produces the game tokens. Northern Plastics in Elroy, Wisconsin, had three presses and four full-time employees when Horn Abbot came calling in 1983. Horn Abbot advanced Northern the cash to buy the plastic and the molds. One year later, Northern had 140 employees and eight presses working seven days per week.

Coming up with the questions

Ever wonder where the Trivial Pursuit folks get their ideas for all those questions (6,000 per edition)? Many of the topics come from the recesses of their complex minds, of course, but they also got some outside help, as Fred L. Worth discovered. Worth was a fellow triviot who'd published three exhaustive volumes of a "trivia encyclopedia" prior to 1981. Worth knew that legally one could not "own" facts of public record, but one could copyright the form of one's own material.

Worth used a common mapmaker's trick to trip up anyone who dared copy information from his books verbatim—he purposely included an erroneous fact. In this case, his "bunny" (as such red herrings are called in the industry) was to state that the first name of TV's Columbo was "Philip."

(Peter Falk's character's first name was never actually mentioned during the run of the series.)

Lo and behold, a Trivial Pursuit question in the Genus Edition included the Columbo question along with the "Philip" answer. Worth jumped on Horn Abbot like a rabid wolverine and on October 23, 1984, filed a $300 million lawsuit against them. Judge William Byrne tossed the case before it came to trial, stating that Trivial Pursuit was "substantially different" than the Super Trivia encyclopedia.

"You always get the nuts coming out of the woodwork who say they've invented this before," patent attorney Jim Carson stated in a 1984 interview (his firm represented Horn Abbot at the time). One such "nut" was Buddie Miller of Trinidad and Tobago, who invented a board game called Brainstorm in 1977. Brainstorm was a trivia game of sorts, and Miller's contention was that because his game featured cards printed with questions, Horn Abbot had copied his idea. He wasn't able to pursue the case very far legally, because he'd only copyrighted his game in Trinidad and Tobago. How similar are the two games? Check out Miller's website (yes, he's still pretty bitter to this day) and make your own decision.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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