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7 Games People Played in Colonial America

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Colonial days were rough. If you wanted food, you had to slaughter it or spend a year coaxing it out of the dirt. You could die from an infected hangnail. Not to mention King George was all up in your business. Booze, as we’ve mentioned, was a favorite way to ease the stress of being a Revolutionary. But fun came in non-liquid varieties, too. Many of the better colonial games are explained in the book Colonial Games, Pastimes and Diversions, for the Genteel and Commoner. (Which one are you?)

Below we have a variety of popular colonial amusements, some good and some just god-awful. Regardless, if you broke out any of them at your Fourth of July bash, we’d consider yours a Flossy bash, indeed.

You Should Probably Play These Games At Your Flossy Fourth Party

1. Question and Answer

The amount of fun to be had in “Question and Answer” only depends on how smart (or, let's face it, dirty) you and your friends are. It involves writing oblique questions and all-purpose answers on separate cards, and passing them out randomly. You can make them as silly, dark, or esoteric as your company desires.

Questions like, “Would you kiss anyone who asked you?” “How often do you lie to your spouse?” “Have you ever punched a cow?” are ultimately paired with answers like, “Ask your mother.” “When I’m frustrated by my zipper.” “It’s too erotic to do every day.” Pretty much whatever order you put those in, it’ll be fun.

2. Ring Taw

We all had marbles, but not many of us knew what we were supposed to do with them. I mostly used mine as a sort of primal scream therapy for my father, when he had some emotions linked to “stepping on marbles” that he had to work through. But marbles, as indicated in countless Norman Rockwell paintings, is an actual game—and it’s really quite fun!

There are many ways to play marbles, but the most popular marble game in Revolutionary days was Ring Taw. It’s kind of like playing pool: You use your big Shooter marble (or Taw) like a cue to knock your friends’ marbles out of a drawn circle of dirt. You get to keep all the ones you knock out, even if it means taking some poor kid’s entire stash.

3. Ninepins

Most cultures bowl in some way, shape or form. You know, some version of throwing a rolly-slidey thing with the intention of knocking down a group of standy things.

In colonial times, folks mostly used the version favorited by the Dutch settlers, called “Ninepins.”  (The mental_floss store carries a great lawn bowling set, perfect for backyards or just impressing your friends with your knowledge of Dutch sporting history.) It was remarkably similar to modern bowling, complete with beer and abuse heaped on competitors that starts out fun and becomes hostile by the end of the night.

You Probably Should NOT Play These Games at Your Flossy Fourth Party

If you’ve read old books, you have some idea of the long attention span of our forefathers, and their willingness to slog through baffling, mind-numbing detail. This sometimes applied to their party games, too. The following games, which are real examples of the amusements of the day, might be better saved for Halloween. Partially because they’re creepy, and partially because the rules are rather mysterious.

4. The Simpleton

To play The Simpleton, all guests form a circle around another player and pretend to engage in different careers (painting walls, writing books, smelting … that which ought be smelt). Then, the player in the center pretends to play a flute, and sings a song about Margaret, who does not love him. And then … well, the original text can explain it better than I can:

“When he ceases to sing, to take up the trade of one of the players, that player must play in his turn on the flute, moving his fingers, as if holding one, but without being obliged to sing; and when the conductor of the game takes up his song again or takes another trade, the player on the flute must quickly return to his: if he mistakes, he gives a forfeit to the master of the game.”

You got all that? Now stop badmouthing television. It may be the only thing keeping you from playing a pretend flute while your in-laws milk an imaginary cow in your living room.

5. King of Morocco

Or perhaps you’d rather trundle your way through the always-popular pastime, King of Morocco? It was one of the games of the era that helped unmarried couples cope with the seething undercurrent of sexual tension that gnawed the seams of civilized society. It involves a man and woman walking solemnly across from opposite corners, holding candles. They meet, and recite the following.

The Gentleman: Have you heard the frightful news?
Lady: Alas!
Gentleman: The King of Morocco is dead.
Lady: Alas! alas!
Gentleman: He is buried.
Lady: Alas! alas! alas!
Gentleman: Alas! alas! alas! and for four times, alas
He has cut his throat with a piece of glass.”

Then "both end their walk with a solemn air, and ... run gayly to their places."

Phew! Let me…let me just catch my breath for a second. That was hot.

Never, EVER Play These Games At Your Flossy Fourth Party…Seriously

Just don’t do it. Channel your rage into something less deadly.

6. Cockfighting

This was big back in the day. With human beings dropping left and right from either sickness or war or … a good stiff breeze, they weren’t about to worry about a couple lentil-brained chickens scratching and pecking each other to death. Nowadays we prefer our senseless bloodshed to result mostly from zombie interference. Let’s keep it that way.

7. Dueling

It’s wrong to say the colonials considered the structured murder of one another over a disagreement a “game.” It was more of a sport. The rules (the ones put forth here are from a code used in 1777) were extremely important, as they elevated the activity, making it civilized instead of barbaric.

In truth, death wasn’t necessarily the goal in dueling—the general idea was that the violence could be stopped after serious blood was drawn, suggesting that it was perfectly acceptable to fire for a foot or drive your sword into a shoulder. However “children’s play,” or firing in the air, was strictly forbidden.

Other Rules:
- The challenged has the right to choose his own weapons, except if the challenger doesn’t know how to use that weapon. The challenger cannot argue with the second choice no matter what.

- “Any insult to a lady under a gentleman’s care or protection to be considered as by one degree greater offence than if given to the gentleman personally, and to be regarded accordingly.”

- The challenged chooses the place, the challenger chooses the distance, and the seconds (friends roped into this mess) fix the time and details of the shooting.

There are many, many opportunities during the preparation for a duel that apologies are allowed, even urged. A simple, “All right, dude. I’m sorry. I was just mad she dumped me for you,” could have saved countless lives.  Remember this at your party.

You’ll find much of the stuff you need to accommodate these suggestions for your Flossy Fourth Party at the mental_floss online store!

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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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