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7 Bizarre Ways Kids Amused Themselves Before Video Games

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TinHouse.com

This generation is soft, and uninspired. In the old days, all a kid needed to have a good time was imagination, some throwing knives, and a couple of belts tied round his neck. Here are seven examples of forgotten fun.

1. The Trussed Fowl

If you think the main object of playing “Trussed Fowl” would be to escape what has been done to you, you are cowardly and lack imagination. A 1907 book of party games describes the precise method of bondage the game required: “Trussing consists of firmly tying the wrists and ankles, bringing the elbows down below the knees, and slipping a stick under along one elbow, under both knees and over the other elbow." (You can see it illustrated above.) Once properly subjugated, two children are placed foot to foot. The ostensible object of the game is to flip the other child over, using only your toes. The real object of the game is to watch children writhe on the ground. Maybe now you’ll keep your baseball out of my yard, Jimmy.  

2. Catch and Pull

Google Books

In the olden days, kids didn't use video games to get out aggression; it had to come out more organically. Catch and Pull is a game recommended in a 1921 publication as excellent physical exercise for the school gymnasium. Two teams stand on either side of a line. Then, commence Battle Royale. The goal is to grab any body part belonging to an opposite player and use it to drag him to your side of the line, and so on, until there is only one person remaining on the opposing side. The book doesn’t specify what happens to the remaining player, but I hope he would have at least earned the right to choose his own method of execution.

3. Mumbly Peg

Library of Congress

Why don’t kids throw knives at each other anymore? It built character, and prepared you for whatever war you were going to be drafted into. Mumbly Peg was popular among boys in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Each boy would, in turn, perform a series of complicated knife throws—left handed, round the back, launched from behind his ear—escalating in difficulty. The knife had to stick in the ground at the end of each throw. In some versions, winners were picked on how close the knife landed to their own foot. You won automatically if it stuck in your foot (seriously). The first boy to fail to stick a throw would have to get the mumble peg, a piece of wood driven into the ground by the winner, using the knife as a hammer. And he could only use his teeth. Thus, the mumbly part of Mumbly Peg.

4. Kick the Can

The Victory Report

You’ve likely heard of this game, and perhaps, like me, envisioned some sort of depressing urban soccer where tattered children, after licking every last bit of bean juice from the inside of a can, had to use it in place of a ball. In reality, the rules of this game were closer to hide and seek, except with an added element of hopeless futility. The children all hid, except for “It.” It had to track down the hidden kids (who were allowed to move at will) and tag (or in some versions just sight) them. The captured kids went to prison. But none of that really mattered, because at any time a player who was still free could run up and “kick the can,” shouting, “All Ye, All Ye, Out and Free!” (It’s not “olly olly oxen free.” That’s just silly.) Then all the prisoners scrambled and re-hid while It had to go retrieve and replace the can, starting the game all over. People who remember playing this game as child say it usually ended when It became bitter and dehydrated and went home.

5. Progression

Google Books

Progression is a throwback to when birthday parties were more about structured fun and less about parents holding their heads in their hands while children ran screaming around them at the Chuck E Cheese. The players are lined up, and each one must “progress” to a goal point in front of them. The only rule is, you cannot move in any of the same ways the people before you moved. If you’re at the end of a long line of players, you may find yourself furiously slapping your own butt while hopping across the grass on one foot. These games were likely meant to be more fun for the spectators than the participants.

Note that Progression is one of the few physical games where girls were considered viable participants. Girls had their own games, usually involving hand-holding, string, and daisy chains.  Letting them get used to fresh air and be in command of their own bodies would have just been cruel.

6. Dog Fight

Google Books

My theory is that people got so tired of having to be so dignified in the old days, with all their pocket watches and World Wars, that they just needed an outlet. How else to explain two people on all fours, strapping belts around their necks and yanking at each other while spectators literally bark encouragement at them? You’d have to pay good money to get someone to do that for you nowadays.

7. Hot Cockles

Google Books

Now, stepping back further in time, we have Hot Cockles. It sounds uncomfortable, and it is. This Victorian game returns to a common theme in bygone amusements: People sitting around abusing each other for fun. Basically, you laid your head in someone’s lap while all the other party-goers took turns hitting you from behind. The game was to guess who was beating on you. The prize was to be allowed to leave.  

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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