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The Board Game Trial of the Century

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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.

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Cell Free Technology
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This Pixel Kit Will Let You Play Tetris With Jellyfish DNA
Cell Free Technology
Cell Free Technology

Forget playing Tetris on your phone. Now you can play it with jellyfish DNA. Bixels is a DIY game kit that lets you code your own games using synthetic biology, lighting up a digital display with the help of DNA.

Its 8-by-8 pixel grid is programmed to turn on with the help of the same protein that makes jellyfish glow, called green fluorescent protein (GFP). But you can program it to do more than just passively shine. You can use your phone and the associated app to excite Bixels' fluorescent proteins and make them glow at different frequencies, producing red, blue, and green colors. Essentially, you can program it like you would any computer, but instead of electronics powering the system, it's DNA.

Two blue boxes hold Bixel pixel grids.

Researchers use green fluorescent protein all the time in lab experiments as an imaging agent to illuminate biological processes for study. With Bixels, all you need is a little programming to turn the colorful lights (tubes filled with GFP) into custom images or interactive games like Tetris or Snake. You can also use it to develop your own scientific experiments. (For experiment ideas, Bixels' creator, the Irish company Cell-Free Technology, suggests the curricula from BioBuilder.)

A screenshot shows a user assembling a Bixel kit on video.

A pixel kit is housed in a cardboard box that looks like a Game Boy.

Bixels is designed to be used by people with all levels of scientific knowledge, helping make the world of biotechnology more accessible to the public. Eventually, Cell-Free Technology wants to create a bio-computer even more advanced than Bixels. "Our ultimate goal is to build a personal bio-computer which, unlike current wearable devices, truly interacts with our bodies," co-founder Helene Steiner said in a press release.

Bixels - Play tetris with DNA from Cell-Free Technology on Vimeo.

You can buy your own Bixel kit on Kickstarter for roughly $118. It's expected to ship in May 2018.

All images courtesy Cell-Free Technology

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Habibou Kouyate, Stringer, Getty Images
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Play a Game to Help Scientists Defeat a Cancer-Causing Toxin
Habibou Kouyate, Stringer, Getty Images
Habibou Kouyate, Stringer, Getty Images

If you're used to fighting virtual zombies or flying spaceships on your computer, a new series of games available on Foldit may sound a little unconventional. The object of the Aflatoxin Challenge is to rearrange protein structures and create new enzymes. But its impact on the real world could make it the most important game you've ever played: The scientists behind it hope it will lead to a new way to fight one of the most ruthless causes of liver cancer.

As Fast Company reports, the citizen science project is a collaboration between Mars, Inc. and U.C. Davis, the University of Washington, the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa, and Thermo Fisher Scientific. The team's online puzzles, which debuted on Foldit earlier this month, invite the public to create a new enzyme capable of finding and destroying carcinogens known as aflatoxins.

Aflatoxins form when certain fungi grow on crops like corn, nuts, and grains. Developing countries often don't have the resources to detect it in food, leaving around 4.5 billion people vulnerable to it. When people do eat food with high aflatoxin levels unknowingly, they can contract liver cancer. Roughly a quarter of all liver cancer cases around the world can be traced back to aflatoxin exposure.

The toxin's connection to agriculture is why the food giant Mars is so interested in fighting it. By working on a way to stop aflatoxins on a molecular level, the company could prevent its spread more efficiently than they would with less direct methods like planting drought-resistant crops or removing mold by hand.

The easiest way for scientists to eradicate an aflatoxin before it causes real harm is by making an enzyme that does the work for them. With the Aflatoxin Challenge, the hope is that by manipulating protein structures, online players will come up with an enzyme that attacks aflatoxins at a susceptible portion of their molecular structure called a lactone ring. Destroying the lactone ring makes aflatoxin much less toxic and essentially safe to eat.

The University of Washington launched Foldit in 2008. Since then, the online puzzle platform has been used to study a wide range of diseases including AIDS and Chikungunya. Everyone is welcome to contribute to the Foldit's new aflatoxin project for the next several weeks or so, after which scientists will synthesize genes based on the most impressive results to be used in future studies.

[h/t Fast Company]

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