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5 Commonly Fixed Carnival Games

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The sights and smells of the carnival midway are nostalgically familiar: funnel cakes, carousel calliope music, and the sounds of hearts breaking when amusement park goers plunk down a few bucks to try to win the biggest stuffed animal in the place. Not all carnival games get rigged, but some stack the odds. Here’s a look at five common fixes for midway games.

1. Knock Over The Milk Bottles

It’s probably the most straightforward game on the midway: A carnival worker stacks three milk bottles in a pyramid, hands you a softball, and you cash in on your best Nolan Ryan impression, right? It’s not usually that simple. Bottles stacked on the bottom are often filled with lead and weigh in at 10 pounds, and the softball you’re given puts an emphasis on soft—they may be filled with cork to make them lighter.

Here’s one more trick to watch for: If one bottle sits more jutted out than the rest (even by just half an inch, according to a Today Show hidden camera investigation), it absorbs the force of the ball from the others when you give it your best toss.

2. Balloon Dart Throw

Before you step back and let that dart fly, remember you’re playing with what the house gives you. Dull darts (and often ones that are lighter to throw than store-bought darts) are often used in the game, and some carnival employees even heat the tips to make popping balloons more difficult.

But the balloons are equally deceptive: They might look ready to burst, but they’re usually inflated to just 30 percent of their full air capacity, making them tough to pop. The reason the balloons are a rainbow of different colors isn’t just to make the booth more alluring—it’s a distraction technique, too.

3. Free Throw

The basketball hoop rims on free throw booths at carnivals are probably enough to give LeBron James fits: They’re smaller than regulation hoops, and according to a 2011 Art of Manliness article, “bent into an oblong shape to appear larger in the front.” Bruce Walstad, an investigator of rigged carnival games, says the oval hoop is designed to make players lose. Even with a perfect shot, there’s only a half-inch margin of error for shooters.

The rims aren’t the only thing that wouldn’t fly with NBA regulations: basketballs are often overinflated to give them an extra bounce, and Glenn Hester, a police officer from Georgia who specializes in carnival games fraud (he’s penned a book called Carnival Cop) says that “there may be netting or other items behind the rim designed to interfere with your depth perception.”

4. Ring Toss

When a carnival worker slides a ring around a pole to show how easy the game is, that’s because the game is exactly that simple—at least from where the employee is standing (usually somewhere where he can just drop the ring from directly overhead and with a ring that’s wider than the one he’ll give you to toss).

The Carnival Cop warns about the pitfalls of ring toss games in his book as well: The rings are just barely wider than the bottlenecks, Hester says, and are made of hard plastic so they’re more likely to bounce around than loop around your target.

5. Ball Bounce

Though it doesn’t have quite the infamy of the Tubs of Fun (and the New Hampshire man who blew his life savings playing the game earlier this year), bouncing a plastic ball off a vertical board and into a basket is no easy task. Carnival workers told the Today Show’s Jeff Rossen that what players don’t see is a spring behind the tub that bounces the balls back out.

Like in the ring toss, carnival workers have prime real estate to make the game look easy. Carnival workers standing right next to the board can lightly brush the ball against the board when they throw—there’s a lot less bounce-back from that angle.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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