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Throwback: 4 Football Games From the Good Old Days

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Most of us never had a chance of playing in the NFL, but that didn't stop us from dreaming on a smaller scale by playing football games in our basements. Here are four fun ways generations of fans have played football using little more than their imaginations.

1. Electric Football

How electric football became popular is a bit of a mystery; there's really no skill involved, and most of the time, plays ended with all the players stuck in a corner. Still, the game has been a huge success for decades.

Gameplay is simple—set up your team in an offensive or defensive pattern and hit the switch. The metal "field" vibrates, the players move, and if the quarterback gets hit by a defensive player, he's "tackled." Really, that's all there was to the game when it was introduced by Tudor Metal Products in 1947. But other companies soon made knock-offs, and the need to differentiate products made the addition of new game features a constant show of one-upmanship. Some updates were superficial but fun, like a cardboard stadium full of fans that surrounded the field. Others added a level of skill to the otherwise random game, like a spring-loaded player kids could use to kick field goals and throw passes with a small plastic football.

Tudor-NFLHowever, Tudor was always the big innovator. They were the first to switch from flat, metal silhouettes of the players to 3-D, plastic sculpts. With the new game pieces, they soon got the endorsement of the NFL to paint the players with team colors and were able to use team logos on the stadium backdrop. These features made Tudor's games incredibly popular in the NFL-crazy 1970s. Tudor also introduced a groundbreaking feature called "TTC," or "Total Team Control," which gave "coaches" the ability to influence the direction their players moved. The TTC system comprised of small prongs on the base of the figures which could be "tweaked" by bending, shaving, or even chemically treating them to create incredibly fast players that moved with some sense of purpose.

Once video games hit, electric football fell out of vogue with many young players. But fans who grew up in the game's heyday were able to keep it going through the '80s and '90s. Today, Miggle Toys is the primary producer of electric football, and the company has helped nurture regional leagues across the country. For more information, check out the website of the Miniature Football Coaches Association.

2. Mattel Football I

It seems like kids these days always have their noses buried in a Nintendo DS or PlayStation Portable. I wish I could say my generation was better, but we had our heads down and thumbs twitching for hours playing Mattel Football, the first mega-successful handheld video game.

mattel-footballReleased in June 1977, Mattel Football had a simple concept: get the bright dash—representing the ball carrier—past the five slightly dimmer dashes that represented the defense. Believe it or not, but this was a revolution in video gaming. Not bad for a hacked pocket calculator.


Because it was a based on a calculator, those dashes were really the top, middle, and bottom segments of a digital number eight. According to Mark Lesser, the designer of the game, this also answers one question that has nagged players for years: Why was the field only 90 yards? It was not, as the urban legend says, the fault of a Japanese designer who had never seen a football game. In fact, the reprogrammed calculator chip couldn't process more than nine "numbers" across, meaning Lesser had to make due with fewer yards.


Because early sales were lackluster, the primary distributor, Sears & Roebuck, ran a computer model to determine how well the game would sell over time. Based upon the model's estimates, Sears canceled their initial order of 500,000 units and purchased a conservative 100,000 games instead. Then Christmas came, and Mattel Football sold like gangbusters. By mid-January, Sears wanted 200,000 units every week. By the end of February, that number more than doubled, to 500,000 every week. Of course, with strong sales came a sequel, Football II, with the upgraded ability to run forward and backwards, as well as pass to a phantom teammate downfield. Designers also used a different calculator chip that could display 10 numbers across, giving players the full 100-yard field.

Mattel re-released the game in 2000, complete with the 90-yard field and authentic beeping sounds. However, if you grab your iPhone or iPod Touch, search for "LED Football" in the Apps Store. For 99 cents, you'll find a pretty loyal version that's even more portable than the groundbreaking original.

3. Foto-Electric Football

foto-electric-fb

A great football coach isn't born—he's made. And a lot of play-callers started their gridiron education with Cadaco's Foto-Electric Football. Introduced in 1941, the game consisted of green overlay sheets printed with plays for both sides of the ball. The offensive sheets had O's for players and a white line indicating the path of the runner or pass. The defense was a series of X's laid out across the field. Each player secretly chose which play he wanted to run, and placed the sheets on top of each other on the playing field box. Adversaries couldn't see if their strategies were successful until a small light inside the box was turned on and they slid a piece of cardboard back to reveal the sheets. Based upon where the X's, O's, and the white line intersected, dice were rolled, charts were consulted, and yardage was determined.

foto-fb-3The game was a staple until the 1970s when early handheld video games like Mattel Football began taking over the sports toy world. In an effort to make their game as portable as the video games, Cadaco replaced the cumbersome light box that required an electrical outlet to play, with a simple sleeve dubbed the "Play Revelator." But it was too little too late, and sales continued to slide until it was eventually discontinued. Cadaco brought the game back in 1990 with NFL Pro-Foto Football. It, too, was discontinued and has since become a pretty rare find. But if you'd still like to check out Foto-Electric Football, the vintage games are readily available on eBay.

4. Tecmo Super Bowl

tecmo-super-bowlIf you're playing the latest Madden video game on your Xbox, Wii or PS3, complete with real NFL players, interactive gameplay, and the ability to run through a full season, you can thank 1991's Tecmo Super Bowl for making all of that possible.


Tecmo Super Bowl for the Nintendo Entertainment System was the much-improved sequel to Tecmo Bowl, a popular game from 1988. While the original was one of the first video games to feature real players' names, TSB upped the ante by getting the full endorsement of the NFL—and the ability to use player names, stats and NFL team logos. Tecmo Super Bowl also featured in-game player statistics tracking, a full season with both Super Bowl and Pro Bowl games, and offered eight offensive plays that you could edit to your liking (the original game only had four that you couldn't tweak). While play calling was important, the fast-paced arcade action made the skill of the virtual player and the human controlling him the most vital part of the final score.

tecmo-boOver the years, many Tecmo football games have been released, but Super Bowl has stood the test of time. It has consistently been ranked by game critics as one of the best games for the Nintendo, most recently by IGN.com, who ranked it #53. And thanks to video game console emulators like Nestopia, dedicated gamers are still playing it today after rewriting the original software to include current players, current teams and current stats. With these modified versions of the game, armchair quarterbacks hold Tecmo league tournaments, and run simulations to see who might win real-world contests, like the upcoming Super Bowl XLIV. If you want to see who's going to win, head over to the "Tecmo Repository" and find out, complete with video highlights of the game.
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This is just a handful of the dozens of football games and toys kids have enjoyed over the years. What were some of your favorites? Or if you have fond memories of playing one from the list, tell us all about it! Special thanks to loyal _flosser chachmo for suggesting this topic. If there's something you'd love to see covered, feel free to tweet in my general direction—@SpaceMonkeyX.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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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]

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