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A Brief History of Marbles (Including All That Marble Slang)

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If you're the type of mibster that has knuckled down with a taw and shot for an aggie duck, then you already know quite a bit about mibs. If you're among the many people who have no idea what any of that means, stick around as we explore the history of marbles.

Rolling Through History

Believe it or not, but no one really knows where marbles originated. They've been found in the ashes of Pompeii and in the tombs of ancient Egyptians, and they were played with by Native American tribes, so it's impossible to pin down a precise country of origin. The earliest examples were simply stones that had been polished smooth by a running river, but for centuries artisans made them by hand from clay, stone, or glass.

Mass production became possible in 1884, when Sam Dyke of Akron, Ohio, created a wooden block with six grooves, each of which held a lump of clay. An operator would roll a wooden paddle over all the clay balls at once, with a back-and-forth and slightly lateral motion, creating six marbles. With around 350 employees, Dyke's factory was cranking out five train carloads, or about one million marbles, every day. Mass production made marbles much cheaper to make, allowing the price to drop from about one penny each to a bag of 30 marbles for the same price. Other businessmen jumped on the bandwagon and Akron soon became the marble capital of late-19th century America.

In 1915, mass production of glass marbles began, thanks to a machine invented by Akron's M.F. Christensen. His machine consisted of a screw conveyor made up of two grooved cylinders spun next to each other. A "slug" of molten glass was placed between the cylinders on one end and it was gradually carried down to the opposite side, simultaneously cooled and shaped into a sphere by the rolling grooves. The design worked so well, it has remained essentially unchanged and is still the most common way to make marbles today.

Watch marble production on "How It's Made":

Marbles were really popular throughout the early part of the 20th century, but World War II rationing, plus the utter chaos of the European Theatre, put a damper on the sport. It enjoyed a brief resurgence in the 1970s, and continues to be played today, but it has never been able to reclaim its title as a childhood institution.

Talk Like a Mibster

To the layman, a marble is just a marble. But if you're an experienced player, you probably have a half-dozen slang terms to describe the sphere in front of you. Marbles usually earn their nickname based upon what they look like, what they're used for, or the material used to make them. For example, "aggies" are marbles that are made from agate, a type of stone. An "alley" can be a marble made of alabaster, but it can also be another term for a "shooter" or "taw," the large marble used to knock around the smaller ones, which are sometimes called "mibs" or "ducks." "Bumblebees" are yellow and black striped. "Jaspers" are common, blue marbles made from glazed or unglazed china. "Onionskins" are glass marbles with swirls of layered colors that extend over the length of the marble. "Sulphides" are semi-opaque glass marbles that usually contain a small figured in the middle. Sometimes the figurine is an animal, a character (like Santa Claus), or even a real person (like Teddy Roosevelt, at left). And if you can spot any of these marbles on sight, you're probably a "mibster," a term for someone who plays marbles.

Morphy Auctions

In-game slang includes many phrases that have made it into the everyday lexicon. For example, to "knuckle down" means to put your hand in a position to shoot your marble, keeping at least one knuckle on the ground at all times. "Fudging" means you crossed the line on your shot, which is a minor form of cheating. If you're about to take an easy shot with your taw, you can say the marble you're aiming for is a "dead duck." Playing "for keeps" means that any competitor's marbles you knock out are added to your personal collection. Oddly enough, the origin of the phrase, "losing your marbles" can't definitively be traced back to the game of marbles. However, if you were to lose all your marbles in a "for keeps" game, you probably would go a little bit crazy.

Glory in the Ring

You might think you know how to play marbles, but I'm afraid you don't. That's because there is no single game called "marbles." By the same token, any game that uses marbles can be called "marbles." There are hundreds of games that can be played with marbles, however, the most common game used for modern tournament play is known as "Ringers."

To play Ringers, two mibsters arrange 13 ducks in an X at the center of a 10' diameter ring. The mibsters take turns knuckling down with their shooters and firing into the ducks, scattering them. Any ducks that leave the ring are worth one point each. If his shooter stays in the ring, the mibster can keep shooting ducks, earning more points. However, once his shooter leaves the ring, it's the next mibster's turn. Once all 13 marbles have been knocked out, the ducks are re-racked into an X again for the next round. Play continues until one mibster has 50 points.

Ringers is played at the National Marbles Tournament (at left), held over four days in June since 1922 in Wildwood, New Jersey, with winners in both the boys and girls divisions since 1948. The players are all between the ages of seven and 15, and compete for scholarships, prizes, and, of course, glory in the ring. This year, about 50 of the best mibsters in the country played, but your reigning king and queen of marbles are Brandon Matchett and Baily Narr, both from Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is quite the marbles powerhouse – since the tournament began, 71 champions have hailed from the Keystone State.

Ringers is also the preferred game for the British and World Championship, played at The Greyhound Inn and Pub in Tinsley Green in West Sussex every Good Friday since 1932. The area has a competitive marble legacy dating back to 1588, though, when, legend has it, two young men played for the hand of a beautiful woman. The tournament is truly international, and teams from Germany, America, Japan, and the Czech Republic have all participated. This is a team competition, where 49 ducks are placed in the center of the ring; mibsters shoot into the group with a "tolley" (their term for a shooter) and fight to be the first team to score 25 points. 

Of course Ringers isn't the only game played in organized competitions. In 2011, Standing Stone National Park in Crossville County, Tennessee, was the site of the 29th Annual Rolley Hole Championship. Rolley Hole is similar to croquet and is especially popular in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia. In Europe, the World Marbles Championship has been held annually in Prague since 2005, where they play a game that closely resembles golf.

A Beautiful Investment

If you were a mibster in your youth, or if you just think marbles are cool to look at, you're in luck – collecting vintage marbles is a very popular hobby. But before you start bidding on eBay, there are a few things you ought to know.

There are a variety of different kinds of marbles, but the ones that bring top dollar are handmade and machine made glass marbles. Handmade are more sought after, simply because they're so rare and reflect more deliberate craftsmanship. But particularly beautiful machine made examples can still command a respectable price. You can tell the difference between the two by the presence of a pontil, a small rough spot that is left over when the handmade marble is removed from the glass rod in its final stages of production.

Size, manufacturer, and condition are important, but the main thing a marble collector looks for is the beauty of the design. There are, of course, many different styles that are popular with collectors, with about a dozen different terms used to describe them. Some of the more popular styles are onionskins, corkscrews, lutz, micas, clearies, Indians, Joseph's Coat, oxbloods, and sulphides. The more colors and the more delicate the artistry, the more you'll pay for a marble, regardless of the condition.

To collect marbles, you'll probably want to pick up a few tools of the trade. You'll need a magnifying glass or jeweler's loop to check the condition of the marble, so you can see how bad the inevitable chips, flakes, or scratches are on a game-played marble. This can also help you see the details on the figurine inside a sulphide marble. It also never hurts to have a hand-held black light. Some vintage marbles will glow under black light, because they were made with a small quantity of Uranium. The marbles are perfectly safe to handle, though, because the Uranium has been encased inside the glass.

Morphy Auctions

Of course you'll also need your wallet, because good condition marbles do not come cheap. Your average vintage duck can run anywhere from $10 to a few hundred dollars. Shooters usually start in the $50 range and only go up from there, often selling for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. For example, earlier this month at Morphy's Auction House in Denver, PA, one of the top marbles auctioneers in the country, they sold a single peacock Lutz onionskin for $13,200 (at left). It was sold as part of the collection of Paul Baumann, the man who literally wrote the book on marble collecting back in 1969. Other notable sales in the collection included an amber glass Latticino Swirl for $10,800, a sulphide with a painted lion figure inside for $7,800, and a beautiful, black-and-white clambroth for $5,700. However, one of the biggest – if not the biggest – amount ever paid for a single marble was a whopping $27,730 for a big 3" shooter (below) in 2010. Not a bad return on what was probably an investment of a few pennies.

You can check out the rest of the Baumann Collection on the Morphy Auctions website.

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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]