CLOSE
Original image
getty images

The Board Game Trial of the Century

Original image
getty images

The true story of Monopoly is no secret to mental_floss readers: It was Elizabeth "Lizzie" Magie who first drew the square board framed by properties, railroads, and utilities, and she called her creation The Landlord’s Game. “Let the children once see clearly the gross injustice of our present land system,” she wrote in 1902, “and when they grow up, if they are allowed to develop naturally, the evil will soon be remedied.” She received a patent two years later (which you can read here), but it ultimately did her little good. In 1935, a fellow named Charles Darrow claimed her idea as his own and sold it to Parker Brothers, which in turn surrounded its newfound gold mine with an army of lawyers. In her excellent new book, The Monopolists, author Mary Pilon revisits the sordid story of Monopoly and recounts how those understandably touchy lawyers almost undid the board game giant.

ANTI-MONOPOLY

In 1974, attorneys for Parker Brothers sent a cease and desist letter to Ralph Anspach, an economics professor at San Francisco State. It had occurred to Anspach during a lecture on Adam Smith that Monopoly was problematic. For capitalism to succeed, he believed, it must be competitive. The board game’s ultimate lesson of success through corporate monopolization was thus flawed. Worse yet, because people associated family game nights from youth with a board labeled Monopoly across its center, they were more or less being conditioned to appreciate the idea of such monopolies. He resolved to create an anti-monopoly game, which he called Anti-Monopoly. The game attracted a small, enthusiastic audience with the potential for real growth. It also attracted the attention of Parker Brothers, which wanted it stopped.

Anspach hired a lawyer and began looking into whether Parker Brothers was, in a moment of supreme irony, committing an antitrust violation against Anti-Monopoly. They reasoned that a common trait of monopolies was to use legal threats to scare off competition. Depositions ensued, and though Anspach held his own against the Parker Brothers legal team, he was a teacher of modest means and they were a multimillion-dollar corporation with a lot to lose. The idea of going through with the lawsuit seemed crazy.

It was, therefore, a revelation when Anspach’s son happened upon a passage in a book noting that Charles Darrow hadn’t actually invented Monopoly. If a Monopoly board game preceded Charles Darrow’s 1935 patent, that patent might be overturned. Monopoly might, in fact, be built on a house of Chance cards. It might be in the public domain.

Anspach’s first big break in this line of attack came during a television appearance in Oregon, where he was promoting Anti-Monopoly. An elderly woman called in to the show, noting that she knew someone who played Monopoly long before the Great Depression (and thus before the Darrow patent). This inspired Anspach to track down the players of pre-Darrow Monopoly and assemble an accurate history of the game. Such a history would help prove that Darrow had essentially patented a game like chess or checkers—a long popular game to which he was a latecomer. Anspach took out an ad in Christian Science Monitor and waited, following leads where they came.

THE MISSPELLING ON EVERY MONOPOLY BOARD

Monopoly properties are named after real places in and around Atlantic City, New Jersey. Pull out your yellowed Rand McNally, though, and you’ll note that “Marvin Gardens” is nowhere to be seen. You will, however, find a place between Margate City and Ventnor City called Marven Gardens, spelled with an “e.” The yellow property, misspelled to this day, became a problem for Parker Brothers during the Anti-Monopoly legal process.

Through dogged detective work (and dumb luck), Anspach learned the names Charles and Olive Todd, and paid the couple a visit. He discovered that Charles Todd, along with his wife Olive, his childhood friend Esther, and Esther’s husband Charles Darrow, played a handmade board game together that concerned real estate. Darrow was immediately taken with the game and copied down the board and its rules. On Charles Todd’s original, hand-drawn board, itself a copy, he misspelled “Marven,” which Darrow duplicated in full. This, perhaps, established plagiarism.

Meanwhile, as a result of the Christian Science Monitor ad, word of mouth, and increasing interest in the Anti-Monopoly trial, other, older variants of the game came to light, with properties named after other locales. All of this was bad news for Parker Brothers, which, if it didn’t have a troubling legal situation on its hands, certainly now had a public relations problem. The story of Charles Darrow was central to the Monopoly story. They even printed it in the game’s instructions.

To make this headache go away, General Mills, parent company to Parker Brothers, made an offer to Anspach: In exchange for rights to Anti-Monopoly, they would give him $500,000 and an executive position at Parker Brothers. Anspach refused (which seemed crazier than filing the lawsuit in the first place). He feared that just as Parker Brothers eventually purchased rights to The Landlord’s Game for $500 before burying it forever, they might also kill Anti-Monopoly.

Anspach lost the case. To make an example of him, Parker Brothers, now in possession of 40,000 copies of Anti-Monopoly, really did bury the game—literally: They called journalists to witness the interment of the games in a landfill. The land was quickly sold, and in proper Monopoly fashion, houses were built on top of it.

Meanwhile, a possible legal opening was discovered in the opinion against Anti-Monopoly. There was, perhaps, a misreading of trademark law in the decision. Anspach appealed, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a reexamination of the validity of the Monopoly trademark.

The second hearing began in 1980, and again, Anti-Monopoly lost. In 1982, however, the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision. When the Supreme Court later declined to hear an appeal, it was official: “Monopoly” was no longer a valid trademark.

Today, of course, Parker Brothers still owns Monopoly. Following the lawsuit, major corporations began lobbying Congress to protect longstanding trademarks. The Trademark Act was soon amended and signed into law by President Reagan, and the Monopoly trademark was restored. The amendment did not apply to Anti-Monopoly, however, and it is still available in stores today. Meanwhile, the whole story in glorious detail can be found in The Monopolists.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
arrow
science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
SECTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES