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72 Scenes from the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, 2012

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On September 30, I spent a geektastic day at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo. I arrived early and got a look at many booths before they opened (later, they would be swarmed by thousands of attendees). For much of the day I was one of several referees for the Classic Tetris World Championship. The whole day was a joy -- a convention hall filled with classic games, from Atari to Zelda, with pinball in between. And, this being a Portland event, there were game-themed crafts everywhere. The expo organizers summarized the weekend like so:

• Over 3,000 attendees came through the doors over the weekend
• Over 160 arcade and pinball machines were on display for freeplay
• Over 70 retro video game consoles were set up to play
• There were over 70 vendors in attendance
• Our after-hours event was a blast with over 200 people dining and drinking until midnight right in the Mega-cade
• Our live auction was packed with over 400 attendees. At the auction we raised nearly $900 for Portland's Cat Adoption Team

I just want to emphasize that this event had a "Mega-cade" and it was, indeed, mega. I brought my camera and captured some scenes from the event -- some before the action began, some in the midst of it. Have a look, and click on any photo to enlarge:

Oregon Trail, 2012

This actually happened. In 2012. I have hope for future generations. (To the side of the mega-cade was a large area with various classic computers and game systems set up for free play.)

Atari 2600 - Combat

This also happened, in a little time-warp area in the back of the hall. In the closeup you can see that the game is Combat. Remind you of your childhood much?

Atari 2600 Living Room

Atari 2600 Combat

Scenes from the Mega-cade

The Mega-cade was frankly more mega than these photos convey. Rows of pinball machines, standup arcade games, co-op games, and lots of driving games -- all in freeplay mode! -- made for a geeky paradise. I kept returning to the updated X-Men co-op game, both because it was popular, but also because I had burned hours (and many dollars) on that game in years past.

Joust

Mega-cade

Mega-cade

Mega-cade - Pac-Mans!

I was particularly confused by this "Granny and the Gators" game. Click to enlarge, trust me. (The second photo is a detail of the play area.)

Mega-cade - Granny and the Gators

Mega-cade - Granny and the Gators detail

Mega-cade

Mega-cade

Mega-cade

Here's the X-Men game. Note that in this modified version, instead of two CRT screens, it has one large (and quite nice) LCD.

Mega-cade - X-Men

The family that plays X-Men together...stays together.

Mega-cade - X-Men

And here's a Back to the Future pinball game on the fritz. When was the last time you got to see inside a BTTF pinball game?! (Click to see the guts, especially on the latter two shots.)

Mega-cade - BTTF

Mega-cade - BTTF

Mega-cade - BTTF

Mega-cade - pinball

Mega-cade - pinball

It's hard to see here, but this is a parent teaching a child to play the Empire Strikes Back game. This kid's gonna grow up right.

Mega-cade - Empire Strikes Back

Mega-cade - Empire Strikes Back

Games, Games, Games

There were thousands of game cartridges (and some floppy/CD games) on display, plus some other neat memorabilia. Here's a look at part of what you missed.

Movie Posters

NES Tetris: "From Russia With Fun."

Tetris

Games

Well, this is neat

I picked up some excellent Tetris fridge magnets from this vendor:

Game Art

Game Art

Color Basic

Hey, look -- modern Atari 2600 games!

Games

Games

In case of emergency:

Game Repair Manuals

Games

Nintendo Power

NES Games

NES Controllers and Weapons

Games

Games

Games

Games

Games

Games

Games

Games

Games

Games

Games

Games

This booth was helping an autism charity. There were crowds around it later in the day (this was taken before the doors opened).

Games

Games

Retro Systems

Lots of retro game systems were set up on the show floor -- you could play most of them, and many were also for sale.

Guess what costs $200 these days:

Intellivision clone

The Power Glove: it's so bad. (And it's $249.99.)

Power Glove

Check out the price tag on this:

R.O.B. System

R.O.B. costs less on his own, out of the box:

R.O.B.

Colorful PlayStations

PC System

My father had a system much like this one. Portable!

Note: We almost never do this, but 72 images—that's a lot of images. So we're splitting this into two pages.

PC System

Note the game pucks on top:

Apple Systems

Commodore!

Game System

Game System

Game Systems

This Vectrex has a steering wheel!

Vectrex

I was blown away to see a real live Computer Space console. If you don't know what that is, read your history.

Computer Space!

Computer Space controls

Computer Space!!!

Classic Tetris World Championship 2012

The Classic Tetris World Championship started three years ago; its birth is documented in the film Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters. This year, as I refereed, I caught a few poignant moments.

Players practice just before the 32-player bracket head-to-head matches began.

Tetris trials

Matt Buco (left) topped out in his crucial second game, leaving the game in his opponent's hands. (I featured Buco's Tetris max-out in January.) At this moment the crowd cried "Buco!" in disbelief. Ben Mullen (right, crouching), another Tetris master, watches in concern. At the far right, Tetris master Dana Wilcox looks on. In the following round, Buco, Mullen, and Wilcox were all eliminated. (I refereed the Mullen and Wilcox matches.)

Matt Buco and Ben Mullen

Ben Mullen watches as Buco's score is beaten, removing Buco from play. Let me be clear: Mullen was Buco's competition, but he was not happy to see this happen. Update, Sunday, Oct 7: Breaking news update -- Mullen maxed out NES Tetris one week after this photo was taken. Good job, Ben!

Ben Mullen

Trey Harrison was defeated much like Buco. In this shot, he has already unplugged his controller, knowing his top-out score will be beaten. Seconds later he was eliminated.

Trey Harrison

The final rounds of the tournament were a bit fancier. You may recognize the setup from Ecstasy of Order; this is the quad-panel Tetris screen as players competed. You can also see my phone live-streaming the action.

Tetris finals - screen

Here's a closeup of the first-place trophy (there was also a cash prize). This thing is a fingerprint magnet.

Tetris first prize

And here's Jonas Neubauer holding his trophy aloft as the fog machines kicked in.

Jonas Neubauer wins!

That's All

You really want to go to the Portland Retro Gaming Expo next year. I'll be there, and taking pictures. Come beat X-Men with me, okay?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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