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A Brief History of Nerf (or Nothin')

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The Nerf brand has been bringing kids foamy fun for over four decades now, but the company’s history might not be as familiar to you as the perfect technique for a crushing Nerfoop dunk. Let’s take a look at the Nerf nitty gritty.

It Was Supposed to Be a Volleyball Game

Although Nerf has become the leading name in spongy backyard warfare, its roots were decidedly less violent.

Inventor Reyn Guyer had enjoyed early success by creating the game Twister, and in 1968 he started Winsor Concepts to dream up new toy and game ideas. While working on a caveman-themed game, one of Guyer’s team members began bouncing one of the game’s foam “rocks” over a net. The designers realized that they were onto something and began developing a whole line of games based on foam balls.

Guyer initially took the game ideas to Milton Bradley, the company that had found a hit with his Twister invention. The game giant passed on Guyer’s creation, though. Undeterred, Guyer then pitched the foam games to Parker Brothers.

Parker Brothers wasn’t crazy about the actual games, but they loved the idea of a foam ball that kids could safely play with indoors. The company decided to market just the ball as its own toy. In 1969 Nerf made its debut in the form of the four-inch polyurethane foam Nerf Ball, which Parker Brothers dubbed “the world’s first indoor ball.” After the plain old Nerf ball became a runaway hit, Parker Brothers contracted with Guyer to make the wider array of foam games that he had originally envisioned.


The most memorable of these line extensions was surely the Nerf football, which bounced onto the scene in 1972. The Nerf football actually represented a bit of a technical change for the product line. Parker Brothers made the original Nerf balls by spinning foam on a lathe and cutting it with a piece of hot wire. Making the football, on the other hand, entailed pouring liquid foam into a mold. The resulting ball had a thick outer covering that helped it behave like an ordinary football.

Some of the other Nerf spinoffs failed to achieve the notoriety of the Nerf football. By the time the 80s rolled around, Parker Brothers had started making things like Nerf Pool, Nerf Ping Pong, and, of course, Nerf Table Hockey. The company even started a line of Nerful action figures that looked like anthropomorphic Nerf balls.


The Nerf brand has changed hands several times over the years. In 1987 Tonka purchased Kenner Parker Toys, the then-owner of the Parker Brothers brand, and in 1991 the brand moved again when Hasbro acquired Tonka. Hasbro has held onto the brand and helped it flourish; a 2010 Business Week report pegs the Nerf division’s annual revenues at $150 million.

“It’s Nerf or Nothin’!”

Nerf’s major coup for a whole generation of kids, though, was its introduction of foam weaponry. Sure, tossing a Nerf football around was fun, but shooting your buddies with soft foam balls? That’s real entertainment!

In 1989 Nerf debuted the Blast A Ball, small pinkish cannons that fired golfball-sized foam projectiles, but the 1991 introduction of the Nerf Bow and Arrow cemented the brand’s reputation as the armorer of kids everywhere. The 90s saw Nerf further expand its array of blasters into guns that fired missiles, balls, and suction-cup darts.


The blaster line is still buoying the brand’s sales; in 2009 Nerf even reintroduced the familiar old ad slogan “It’s Nerf or Nothin’!” The weapons are more technologically advanced now, though. The Raider Rapid Fire CS 35 has a capacity of 35 suction darts; the newer Nerf Stampede ECS is a fully automatic blaster that cranks out three darts per second. These toys sound a bit more sophisticated than the old Blast A Ball. (Although my brother and I can attest that the Blast A Ball was great for whacking each other even once its ammunition had been lost.)


All of this extra firepower has come at a price, though. In 2008 Nerf had to recall its N-Strike Recon Blaster after at least 46 reports of kids sustaining injuries while firing the gun. The blaster’s plunger firing mechanism had a nasty tendency of catching users’ skin as it flew forward, which let to welts and bruises on kids’ faces, necks, and chests. [Taylor Lautner image credit: © RAY STUBBLEBINE/Reuters/Corbis]

What does "Nerf" mean?

Some sources claim that “NERF” is an acronym for “Non-Expanding Recreational Foam,” but that story seems too good to be true. Reyn Guyer’s personal website explains that Parker Brothers named the balls after the foam that off-road drivers use to wrap their rollbars.

And while we’re asking questions, what happened to the original prototype Nerf ball? Tim Walsh had the answer in his terrific book, Timeless Toys: Reyn Guyer held onto it. Each year his family uses it as an ornament on their Christmas tree.

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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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