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Sex in a Box: The Twisted History of Twister

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If it hadn’t been for Johnny Carson, Twister may have never gotten off the ground.

On the May 3, 1966, episode of the Tonight Show, Carson took a few minutes to demonstrate the little-known new party game. His guest that night was the blonde bombshell actress Eva Gabor. After a few right foot reds and left hand blues, Carson and Gabor were playfully entangled and the studio audience was in hysterics. Twister went on to sell more than 3 million copies over the next year.

“The game that ties you up in knots” sprang from the imagination of a St. Paul-based ad man / inventor named Reyn Guyer in 1965. Guyer’s firm, the Reynolds Guyer Agency of Design, was hired to do a local back-to-school promotional display for Johnson brand shoe polish. As Guyer tinkered with a colored polka dot paper mat to highlight kids’ shoes, he realized he might be onto something bigger – a game where people acted as the game pieces. Guyer first called his invention King’s Footsie, testing it out on some fellow artists and designers. The fun that four people were having while crammed into provocative shapes onto a 4 x 6 mat was all Guyer needed to see.

© Astapkovich Vladimir/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis

“It didn’t make any difference what the game was at that point,” Guyer told me, “because we began to laugh so hard that it was obvious we were onto something.”

Guyer pitched King’s Footsie to 3M, but they passed. He then hired game designers Charles F. Foley and Neil Rabens to help him further develop the idea. The three of them came up with eight different game ideas for the polka dot mat. The obvious winner was called Pretzel, a test of balance and skill that eventually became Twister. They then licensed Pretzel to Milton Bradley, and that’s where the story gets, well, twisted.

Some accounts say that the company changed the name to Twister against Guyer’s wishes. But Guyer says that the name Pretzel was not legally available. “Still, Twister didn’t seem to have the positive resonance that Pretzel did,” Guyer says, “nor did it really describe the game that well. But it’s solid proof that it doesn’t matter what you call something. Once you name it, that’s what it is.”

Other accounts claim that Foley and Rabens walked off with the patent, taking credit for the invention. It’s true that theirs are the only names on the patent, but according to an interview with Rabens, on the day they applied for the patent, they signed over the rights to Guyer. They made a verbal agreement with him to get a certain percentage of profits, but Rabens says it was not honored. He and Foley soon went their own way, starting their own toy company.

Guyer remembers it differently. “There is a patent, and quite frankly, I wasn’t part of it. Foley and Rabens did a fabulous job and we worked together on it. I feel badly that they didn’t stick around to develop a division of our company. People have a tendency to attribute new products to one person, and I’ve never, in any of the products I’ve developed, seen it happen that one person did it. You share ideas and it’s a process.”

Too Hot for the Sears Catalog

Meanwhile, back in 1965, some execs at Milton Bradley were reportedly uncomfortable with Twister’s sexual undercurrent and felt it went against the company’s clean image. To others, the game – one vinyl mat, one plastic spinner - seemed like a profit-making dream. But in its first months on the market, Twister barely sold at all. Retailers were confused by it. “Sears didn’t think it was appropriate for their catalog,” recalls Guyer. Just as Milton-Bradley was about to give up hope, the PR firm that was promoting Twister tried a last-ditch idea, pushing it to the Tonight Show.

After the spectacle of Carson and Gabor entwined, Guyer says, “people were lined up fifty deep at Abercrombie & Fitch the next day in New York, and Twister was born.” One of Milton-Bradley’s competitors accused them of selling “sex in a box,” but they countered with TV commercials that pushed it as a fun game for the whole family. Looking at the commercials now, there is something slightly disquieting about the thought of a multi-generational pile-on, but in the ‘60s, there was no stopping Twister. It was named Game of the Year in 1967. And like the Hula Hoop, it became one of the biggest fad toys of the decade.

Guyer attributes part of its success to timing. “Ideas that become iconic tend to break rules or norms. Twister broke the rules in a social setting. People had not up to that point been granted the possibility of being that close and enjoying it in a group setting.”

Over 65 million people are said to have now played Twister, and it has found its way into all aspects of pop culture. Weird Al Yankovic and R.E.M have sung about it. Bill & Ted beat Death in a game of it in one of their movies. The characters on Friends played it. Twister tournaments have become popular fund-raising events for college fraternities and sororities. And in 1987, 4,160 students at University of Massachusetts set a world record, laying out mats for one big tangled marathon of Twister.

As for the game’s creators, Foley and Rabens went on to invent a few now-defunct games such as Grab a Loop and Bing-Bang-Boing, as well as the first plastic handcuffs. And in 1969, Guyer helped pioneer another landmark toy - the Nerf Ball. He remains an active designer, with his latest invention a new backyard game called King’s Court.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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