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The Origins of 6 Casino Favorites

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Planning a trip to Vegas in the near future? Never forget that in the long run, the house always wins. But knowing the history of some of your favorite casino games may help soften the blow the next time you're losing your shirt. If you're going to be forking over your money to a casino, you might as well have a few good talking points.

1. Roulette

Roulette, which takes its name from the French for "small wheel," traces its roots back to 18th-century France, and there are a number of interesting tales about its supposed invention. One of the most frequently repeated legends is that mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal invented the game at some point during the 17th century, possibly while searching for a perpetual motion machine. While it's a great story—as are similar narratives about French monks importing the game from China—it probably isn't true.

In fact, no one's quite sure who invented roulette. Encyclopedia Britannica notes that the first record of a similar game called "roulette" dates back to Bordeaux in 1716. The game, which is probably a synthesis of previously existing games called hoca and portique, took a while to evolve, but by the 1790s the familiar roulette wheel layout was in widespread use.

Roulette's popularity in the United States and Europe exploded during the 19th century, but it wasn't so widely practiced in its homeland. From 1836 to 1933 roulette, along with several other forms of gambling, was banned in France.

2. Craps

The next time you toss the dice, remember the traditional game called hazard. Hazard dates all the way back to the 13th century and probably has Arabic origins; the game made its way to Europe following the Crusades.

Craps is a simplified version of hazard that supposedly grew rapidly in popularity after Creole aristocrat Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville introduced it to slaves in Louisiana during the early 19th century. Players shot dice against each other throughout the 19th century, but the casino version we now play didn't burst onto the scene until around 1910. That's when John H. Winn, a bookie and dice maker, invented "bank craps," which is what casinos now offer.

What are the origins of the odd name "craps," though? In the parent game hazard, a roll of two or three is generally referred to as "crabs." When the simplified game came to North America through French-speaking Creoles, they corrupted the word "crabs" into "craps."

3. Keno

Think the senior citizens you usually see playing this bingo-like game are old? They don't have anything on the game itself. Keno traces its roots back to Chinese villages over 2000 years ago. Chinese people played a lottery-like game called "baige piao," which translates into "white pigeon ticket" and operated like modern keno games. As early as the 3rd century B.C. many Chinese towns had an officially sanctioned baige piao game.

When thousands of Chinese immigrants made their way to the United States during the 1840s, they brought the game with them. Although the immigrants first played the game among themselves, it soon caught on with the general population under the name "Chinese lottery," which later gave way to "keno," a slant on the French word quine for "group of five."

Keno made its casino debut in Reno in 1933, but with an interesting twist. At the time, Nevada outlawed lotteries, so players' cards couldn't include numbers. Instead, players bet on the names of racehorses, which were then drawn. In 1951, Nevada law changed, and the familiar numbered cards came into fashion.

4. Blackjack

Blackjack is another game with murky origins. Some historians give the Spanish credit for inventing the game and note that one of the earliest written records of a similar card game comes from Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes around 1601. Others point to the 17th-century French card game vingt et un as the closest forerunner to modern blackjack. Either way, by the 19th century, gamblers in Europe and the U.S. had embraced the task of getting cards that added up to 21, and the game's popularity soared.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the name "blackjack" is just as mysterious as the origins of the actual game. The word "blackjack" goes back to at least 1591, when it was used to refer to a tar-covered jug of beer. By 1889 it had become synonymous with the small club weapon, and only in 1910 did it start referring to the card game. Some sources claim that the name comes from a stipulation in some casinos that getting a blackjack with the ace of spades and a black jack triggered a special bonus payout.

5. Slot Machines

Something like the coin-spewing one-armed bandits that can suck down your quarters so quickly has been around since 1888. Earlier in that decade, similar mechanized gambling devices had started to pop up in American bars, but instead of paying out coins, they usually just earned patrons a free drink or two from the barkeep.

The slot machine didn't really take off until around 1894, when San Francisco mechanic Charles Fey, a German immigrant, built a slot machine of his own. He talked a local saloon owner into putting the machine on his bar, and it made so much money that Fey soon quit his job to open a slot machine factory. In 1898 he introduced the Card Bell, the first three-reel slot machine with automated payouts like modern slots have.

Within 15 years, Fey had placed over 3000 slot machines around San Francisco, but in 1909 the city of San Francisco banned his wares as an amoral menace. At that point it didn't matter, though, as Fey's creations had caught on around the country; he simply shipped his machines out of state.

6. Poker

Records of games like poker exist as far back as 1526, when Europeans played a game called primero or primiera with three-card hands that were ranked like modern poker hands. The bluffing-and-betting variation we now play dates back to around 1700 in England, which later morphed into a French came called "poque." When the French brought the game to Louisiana in the early 19th century, Americans corrupted the name in "poker," and the game caught on.

Texas hold "˜em, the popular variation often played in competitive tournament formats, has cloudy origins, but the Texas State Legislature officially recognizes the small city of Robstown, Texas, as the birthplaces of Texas hold "˜em at some point during the early 20th century. Hold "˜em began to catch on in Las Vegas during the 1960s and really took off when the World Series of Poker gained popularity.

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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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]