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8 Surprisingly Fun Games Uncle Sam Told Soldiers to Play in 1943

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In 1943, the U.S. War Department issued a manual packed with "informal" games that men might play if they were lucky enough to have downtime. The games were intended to occupy mind and body, manage stress, and subtly provide tactical training. Which might explain why so many games involved tackling and beating your fellow soldiers. But other, less physical games translate great from the barracks to the backyard. Here are eight of our favorites.

1. One Out

Equipment: Any easily obtained objects, such as sticks, shirts, or rocks

How to play: This is basically a game of musical chairs meant for soldiers instead of toddlers. So, no music, no graham crackers, but probably a comparable amount of shoving and punching. A line of sticks or similar objects are laid about 40 feet from the players. If there are 10 players, only 9 sticks are laid out, and so forth. At the signal, the players race to the line, "secure" themselves a stick, and race back. The player left stick-less is out, until only one remains.

2. Team Stick Guard

Equipment: A ball and two sticks

How to play: This game is a small serving of Capture the Flag with a heavy side of basketball. Each team has their own stick driven into the ground, surrounded by a 10-foot circle and a "goalie" to protect it. No other players are allowed in the goalie's circle. The referee begins play by throwing the ball between two men of opposing teams. The aim is for them to maneuver the ball close enough to knock the other team's stick out of the ground. Many of the rules from basketball apply: no running with the ball, holding, tripping, tackling, or touching. Such fouls results in a free throw at the opposing stick from the center of the field. The losing team is the one with the most knocked over pin.

3. Box Hockey

Equipment: A homemade box (7 feet by 3.5 feet, with or without a bottom) matching the one above, two sticks, and a ball or piece of wood small enough to fit through the holes

How to play: First, build the box, which probably took all of 20 minutes for men of this generation. From there, it's air hockey with less finger pinching and more accidental knee clubbing. Start the game with the ball balanced on the center partition. Clap sticks three times above the ball, and the game is on. The goal is to get the ball through your opponent's hole. If the ball is knocked out of the arena, it is rolled back in on the opposite side. No stepping inside the box; first person to five points is the winner.

4. Rooster Fight

Equipment: None

How to play: A man from each team is called out, and he must hop on one foot, hands held behind his back, to meet his opponent. The winning man is the one who knocks the other over, or causes him to put his foot down or arms out for balance. Another posture for the game is called "The Drake," which is hands never leaving ankles, as shown in the circle above. (This game thinly avoids becoming bloody combat by wisely removing most dangerous appendages from the battle.)

5. Log Roll

Equipment: Grassy area or floor mats

How to play: Two teams lie side by side on the ground. Starting with the end man, each player must roll over his entire team as soon as he himself is rolled over. The winner is the first team to have their front man roll over all of his men.

6. Chain Dodge Ball

Equipment: Kickball or other soft ball

How to play: This version of dodge ball adds a complex but fun twist. The men form groups of four to six players, each player holding the waist of the person in front of him. Everyone else forms a circle around them. The object is to hit only the end man of the "It" team with the ball. Players in the circle can toss the ball any way they think will accomplish this, and the "It" team can weave and run and flex in any formation possible to avoid it. The front man of the team can even use his hands to bat away the ball from the end man. The players are picked off one by one until the whole team is eliminated. Whichever team stayed inside the circle the longest is the winner.

7. Quick Line Up

Equipment: None

How to play: Simon Says with a loyal army at his feet. The players divide into four equal teams and line up, tallest to shortest, forming a square around the man who's "It." The four lines are designated, "1, 2, 3, 4." Now "It" can walk anywhere he wants on the field, and wherever he stops, the other players must scramble to reassemble their lines around him, same position, same sides. One point to the team who assembles correctly the fastest, first team to five points win.

8. Baste the Bear

Equipment: Buttocks

How to play: As full as this manual was of beating gamesfull-on assault games, and uncomfortably intimate games, it seemed unprincipled not to include at least one. One of the "tamer" rough games is Baste the Bear. The "Bear" in this case must bend at the center of the circle, his posterior presented. He has a "Keeper" whose job it is to protect his rump. The rest of the players circle, trying to slap the bear's buttocks with their open hands. If the Keeper tags a slapper when they reach toward the Bear, the slapper is the new Bear and selects his own tush guardian. Under scoring and winners, the manual simply lists, "None."

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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