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PieceOfMind.Wordpress.com

Elizabeth "Lizzie" Magie, Inventor of Monopoly

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PieceOfMind.Wordpress.com

Welcome to the first installment of Retrobituaries! DB Grady's new column will look back at the lives of interesting (but not crazy famous) people who died long ago.

In 1904, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Magie designed a board game to demonstrate the tragic effects of land-grabbing. In this game, oligarchs enrich themselves at the expense of tenants, the latter of whom only grow poorer as available land decreases and the cost of rent increases. Anyone interested in traveling a non-trivial distance has to pony up for a railroad ticket. Anyone desiring light and water had better open their wallet. And crossing the wrong landowner sends a player directly to jail. The poorer the proletarian player gets, the more he or she is squeezed; there is nowhere to go that doesn’t demand a fee of some kind, and there is no respite. The game ends only when everyone is driven penniless into the ground, but for a single aristocrat who now owns everything. Lizzie Magie named her grim reflection of life The Landlords’ Game, but you probably know it better as Monopoly.

Google Patents

Magie was a disciple of Henry George, a 19th century economist who proposed that land was “common property,” and that as a way of mitigating the self-evident absurdity of owning nature, a single tax would be applied to landowners. The tax would supersede the taxation of “productive labor, ” and such regressive taxes as those on sales would be eliminated. Magie believed The Landlords’ Game would show the world as it is, and might hopefully inspire reforms. “Let the children once see clearly the gross injustice of our present land system and when they grow up, if they are allowed to develop naturally, the evil will soon be remedied,” she said two years before she patented her idea.

Thirty-one years later, a man named Charles Darrow sold a game called Monopoly to George and Fred Parker. As later printed in the game’s instructions: “In 1934, Charles B. Darrow of Germantown, Pennsylvania, presented a game called MONOPOLY to the executives of Parker Brothers. Mr. Darrow, like many other Americans, was unemployed at the time and often played this game to amuse himself and pass the time. It was the game’s exciting promise of fame and fortune that initially prompted Darrow to produce this game on his own.” This finely-threaded needle of a history neglects to mention that Darrow stole the idea entirely from Lizzie Magie.

Google Patents

After Monopoly became a hit, the brothers Parker moved quickly to seize all rights to the game. They tracked down the elderly Lizzie Magie Phillips and offered her one bright orange $500 bill and no royalties. When Parker Brothers offered to produce an unsullied version of The Landlords’ Game, she gladly sold the rights. She was keen to promote Henry George’s economic philosophy and perhaps make a difference in the world. After manufacturing a few copies of the original, the board game giant quickly and thoroughly buried it, all the while slipping the name Elizabeth Magie into the memory hole with its fraudulent “history.” It was far sexier to play up fictitious Great Depression origins than to describe how a couple of board game robber barons ripped off an old lady.

Elizabeth Magie Phillips died in 1948.

Primary image courtesy of PieceOfMind.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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