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The Toadstool Exchange: An Examination of 5 Video Game Currencies

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Most of us will spend a great deal of real money on video games, wherein we can spend a great deal of fictional money—only for much cooler things that are more likely to explode. Here are five video game currencies, a general appraisal of their respective economic outlooks, and an indexed exchange rate for aggressive interstellar and inter-dimensional travelers.

1. Coin (Mario)

The Mushroom Kingdom’s established currency is the gold coin. Despite permanent siege conditions brought upon by the Koopas, and the frequency with which the ruling monarch is kidnapped, the purchasing power of the coin has remained astonishingly consistent. One hundred (100) coins have purchased exactly one (1) resurrection since at least 1985. Still, it’s clear that the realm of Toadstool has endured much hardship since the start of the war. Consider the abundance of bricks throughout the kingdom. They are clearly of very poor quality and extremely fragile. (The punch of a fully grown adult can generally shatter most bricks into dust.) More importantly, the bricks suggest numerous abandoned construction projects. Infrastructure upgrades are essential to maintaining any modern state. Under the reign of HRH Peach, Princess of the Mushroom Kingdom, few if any such projects have been witnessed.

While Her Majesty has been preoccupied with the ongoing conflict with Lord Bowser, King of the Koopas, her dominion has begun to crumble around her. Such hazards as open pipes, gaping crevices filled with lava, and dilapidated, reportedly haunted mansions present ongoing challenges not only for residents of the Mushroom Kingdom, but also its Italian foot soldiers.

2. Rupee (Zelda)

Like the Mushroom Kingdom, Hyrule is plagued with conflict, here in the form of a sorcerer desperate for an ancient relic owned by the ruling family. Unlike the Mushroom Kingdom, Hyrule’s dominant currency is a gem, as opposed to a precious metal. The turbulence of life in the kingdom appears not to have unnerved its citizens. This is perhaps because of the rustic nature of Hyrule—the people are simply too far removed from the situation to worry. At any rate, swords and armor are a part of everyday life. A people comfortable with fighting octoroks while plowing the fields are hearty enough to handle attempted burglaries against its monarchy.

From the earliest recorded history (i.e., the forging of the Master Sword during the so-called Skyward Sword saga) through the telling of the Legend of Zelda, one crafted item has remained largely unchanged: the small wooden shield. Time has neither diminished its utility nor limited its availability in general goods stores. This gives us some idea of the state of Hyrule’s economy. The cost of one (1) wooden shield has increased more than 200% over the years, rising from 50 to an astonishing 160 rupees. Because of such items as magic ocarinas, time is a relative construct in Hyrule, and it is impossible to determine the actual age of the kingdom. As such, standard models fail us. But clearly the purchasing power of the rupee has diminished over time. Notably, a decade after the final slaying of Ganon—whereupon Link set off on his final adventure—there is no evidence of shops or rupees at all, suggesting ultimately a catastrophic economic collapse. Considering the stress put on Hyrule by external forces since its founding, this is hardly surprising. (The Mushroom Kingdom would do well to learn from this tragedy.)

If, in fact, the rupee collapses entirely, it would not be without precedent. In Hungary following World War II, for example, the Pengo to Forint exchange reached four hundred octillion to one (400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1).

3. Bottle Caps (Fallout)

Image credit: Etsy Shop Owner OXthell

Regardless of whether Hyrule suffered a devastating economic collapse, or the Mushroom Kingdom is ultimately conquered or destroyed by the Koopas, survivors can take some comfort that new currency and economies will rise. Post-war Europe is an obvious example (see: the Danzig gulden), but another notable case is the fallout-washed post-apocalyptic American wasteland. There, bottle caps became the successful, stable currency. Though crafts aren’t often negotiable currency but in the strictest of senses (i.e., bartering, but even then with little consistency—see: Craigslist), it’s not a wholly alien concept. In the early 20th century, one Congolese Katanga Cross would buy you six chickens. In West Africa in the 1880s, two Kissi pennies (six-inch, crafted iron rods) could buy a bunch of bananas; two thousand could score you a cow.

Under the circumstances of a thermonuclear apocalypse, bottle caps are as good a currency as any. They are plentiful but limited, geographically well-dispersed, culturally acceptable, difficult to counterfeit, and sufficiently durable. Just as gold is valuable because we’ve all decided to agree that gold is valuable, so too might a cap rush sweep the irradiated post-industrial-pre-industrial continent. When the first dweller of underground Vault 13 emerged in the mid-22nd century, 20 caps could buy one (1) Iguana-on-a-stick. A century later, travelers from Vault 101 would report that iguanas-on-a-stick cost a mere 5 caps. As no living iguana was ever actually seen in the wild during that era, there’s no evidence of a population increase. The price should more or less reflect the performance of the cap, which is pretty good considering the mutants, zombies, and slavers. And there is reason for optimism: President John Henry Eden has promised to devote his administration to rebuilding American infrastructure. And when John Henry Eden builds a country, he builds it to last.

4. UAC Credit (Doom)

Weapons manufacturer Union Aerospace Corporation initially showed great promise as an economic savior to war-torn 22nd-century Earth. A working, stable system of teleportation would have physically connected humanity in much the same way that the Internet virtually connected us. All barriers to trade and social interaction would have been annihilated. Misuse of teleportation technology would have been deterred by a kind of mutually assured destruction (for example, send your army to my capital and I’ll send a nuclear bomb to yours). Likewise, UAC’s tremendous work in establishing self-sustaining colonies on Mars and various moons in the solar system seemed at first to diversify the human supply chain. Then its scientists accidentally opened a gate to hell and destroyed humanity and bunnies alike.

The sheer scale of UAC investments and enterprise, as well as the company’s reliability in volatile times, made it well suited to issuing its own currency, called the UAC Credit. This is not as unusual as it might sound. As matters of convenience, scrips (as private currencies are called) were once used extensively by companies whose activities were located in remote areas. Lumber and mining camps, for instance, would sometimes pay employees with private currency that could be redeemed at company-owned commissaries and exchanges. Similarly, even today, U.S. service members will be familiar with Pogs—small, printed cardboard disks used in combat zones in place of coinage (which is too heavy to transport overseas in meaningful supply). Pogs can be spent or exchanged on any U.S. military installation in the world.

5. Gold (World of Warcraft)

Immediately after the Fall of Stormwind, a strict feudal system seems to grip Azeroth, with lords and ladies providing everything his or her vassals might need. Whether this is an aberration is unclear, but the defeat of such an ancient civilization would clearly have dire economic consequences. Azeroth would soon see historic growth, however, brought upon by untapped and readily accessible veins of gold. Villages were constructed adjacent to gold mines, each of which produced up to 30,000 nuggets even under the less-than-ideal conditions of total warfare. The next two decades would parallel the California Gold Rush of 1848, which infused the global economy with renewed vigor. Twenty-five years after the Azeroth rush and the rebuilding of Stormwind City (later called New Stormwind), the economy reached equilibrium, backed by gold and protected by occasionally organized guilds and factions. The paucity of gold for new adventurers would suggest that the supply was either seized by hostile invaders during the First and Second Wars, or surreptitiously hoarded by the ruling class. As evidenced by the recently remodeled Stormwind Keep, to ask the question is to answer it.

The Toadstool Exchange

The tremendous number of portals, teleportation devices, spells, atomic anomalies, and magic flutes means that truly aggressive adventurers might find themselves in strange lands. For this reason, it might be useful to build a rudimentary exchange, so that a Koopa Troopa knows what to expect, at least monetarily, on Mars. Ideally, we could build an index from the price of an identical item in every world, and thus determine the purchase power parity of the various currencies. One famous example of this is the Big Mac Index, calculated annually by The Economist. (The Big Mac is well suited to such purposes because of its practical nature, and because of the cross-section of industries that go into its creation, from dairy farming to intermodal freight transport.)

Realistically, there’s no precise overlap in goods available for purchase in both Hyrule and Azeroth. However, there is one item of general equivalence found almost everywhere: the simple explosive. Using the least-expensive non-magical explosive available in general goods stores across the board, we can estimate the relative value of currencies. (Added in this index, but not discussed at length, are the Gil, used on Gaia, and the Simoleon, the currency of SimNation.)

In Seaside Town in the Mushroom Kingdom, one (1) Fire Bomb can be purchased for 200 coins (200MK).
*
A shop on the eastern coast in Hyrule sells one (1) bomb for 20 rupees (20HR).
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One (1) Rough Copper Bomb can be purchased in Azeroth for 2 silver, 40 copper (0.024AG).
*
The going rate for one (1) grenade in the Sector 7 Slums of Midgar in Gaia is 80 Gils (80GG).
*
UAC vending machines on Mars sell three (3) rockets for 10 credits (3.33UC).
*
Shops in Pleasantview will sell one (1) Sky Scorcher rocket for 90 Simoleons (90SS). (N.B.: While not a weapon per se, like everything else in Pleasantview it’s likely to destroy property and/or kill someone upon usage.)
*
One (1) fragmentation grenade from Fort Independence in the Capital Wasteland sells for 25 bottle caps (25CW).
*
In the United States today, one (1) hand grenade costs the U.S. Army $27.64 (27.64US).**

Constructed:

200MK = 20HR = .024AG = 80GG = 3.33UC = 90SS = 25CW = 27.64US

Reduced, valuation based on the cap:

8MK = .8HR = .000096AG = 3.2GG = .1332UC = 3.6SS = 1CW = 1.1056

**(N.B.: As such grenades are purchased in bulk and not available for general purchase, this is a poor indicator of value, which would be much greater on the street. It’s staggering, however, to see how closely the price compares with the bottle cap. We can extrapolate from this that once the radioactive dust settles following total thermonuclear war, the tens of thousands of grenades presently in the property of the U.S. Army will flood the market and drive down prices. If this is correct (and it’s very difficult to say, obviously), we can also deduce that the government is therefore getting a pretty fair value.)

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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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