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The Origins of Your Favorite Video Game Friends

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You guys already know that I love Guitar Hero, but my video game fascination began a long time ago. One of my favorite Nintendo games back in the day was Burger Time. And who can resist Frogger? Nick Cannon can't. He claims to be majoring in business administration at Elon University in Elon, N.C., but I bet he plays Tetris on his cell phone during lectures. -Stacy Conradt

The Origin of Your Favorite Video Game Friends
by Nick Cannon

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Ever wondered why Mario is, well"¦ Mario? Just like you and I have a story of how we came into existence, so do our two-dimensional video game favorites. Here's a tribute to some of our faithful flat friends with whom we all have logged many an un-moving hour.

Donkey Kong

donkey_kong1.jpgSpace Invaders came on the video game scene in 1978 and was an overnight hit. Such a hit, in fact, Japan suffered a nationwide coin shortage, resulting in the need to quadruple the amount of Yen in circulation. Nintendo, previously a playing card company, wanted their slice of the pie. They created a similar game called Radarscope, which bombed spectacularly. Nintendo had banked on Radarscope being a blockbuster and had already ordered and paid for an entire warehouse full of arcade gaming cabinets. The job of what to do with the surplus was given to programmer/designer Shigeru Miyamoto.

Miyamoto had originally been working on a Popeye-based game, but had to drop the project when he was unable to obtain the rights. Wanting to stick to his original Popeye theme of "beauty and the beast", he created a disgruntled, gigantic gorilla that had escaped from his annoying, tiny owner. For the "beauty" aspect, the gorilla kidnapped his owner's girlfriend out of retribution for years of captivity. So that leaves us with the name. Kong obviously makes sense, but what about the first part? Miyamoto wanted to demonstrate the beast's stubbornness "“ what better name than Donkey?

Mario

mario.jpgDonkey Kong was also the birthplace of another staple video game character "“ although he was originally known as Jumpman.

Donkey Kong's original owner was none other than the Mario that you and I have come to love. Once DK had taken off (selling 65,000 units to Asteroid's 70,000), all promotional materials referred to his owner simply as Mario. I guess Jumpman didn't have the same ring to it.

Believing that people would identify better with a blue collar hero, Miyamoto made Mario a carpenter in the first video game; he later switched professions, becoming a plumber. The name came from the landlord at Nintendo's Headquarters in NYC, Mario Segali. Mario's trademark mustache is the result of low pixel resolution: a mustache looked a lot better than any mouth they could come up with. Low pixel resolution is also the reason Mario's has a hat instead of hair.

Sonic

sonic.jpgSega went on a quest for a recognizable Mario-esque character to compete with Nintendo. But they hit a few bumps in the road before creating the tough guy we know today as Sonic.

Before hitting the jackpot with Sonic in 1991, Sega's research and development team came up with many an odd character. Some of his predecessors include an Armadillo, a Theodore Roosevelt character (in pajamas), a rabbit, and a dog. Finally, Naoto Oshima came up with the fun-loving, fast-paced face of Sega, Sonic the Hedgehog. His original name was Mr. Needlemouse. That was changed for obvious reasons. Although no blue hedgehogs exist in nature, that color matched Sega's sleek logo. Sonic rolled off to immediate success. He was so popular, he even has his own protein named after him. In 1993, a scientist discovered a protein that caused spiny backs in fruit flies. Because of the resemblance "“ and his love for Sonic "“ the scientist named it the "Sonic the Hedgehog protein." To this day, Mario still does not have his own kind of protein.

Pac-Man

pacman.jpgWe all have a special place in our hearts for our insatiable, round, yellow friend, but no one ever asks to hear his story. The best-selling arcade game of all time came on the scene in 1980 and has been devouring our quarters ever since.

Japanese game designer Toru Iwatani was 26 when he invented the timeless masterpiece. In the original Japanese release, our star was called "Puckman" which was just a wee bit too close to a certain English swear word for the developers' liking. Thus, "Pac-Man" emerged. His name is derived from the Japanese slang term "˜paku paku,' which describes the motion of the mouth opening and closing while eating, and in the literal English translation means "to eat." It was rumored that Pac-Man's shape was created over pizza. Iwatani took one slice from a full pie, the legend goes, and presto! They had their character. But in a 1986 interview, Iwatani admitted that was only half the story, and Pac-Man's design was also influenced by the shape of the Japanese character kuchi, which means mouth. Wanting to appeal to a bigger audience than just young boys and teens, he added the maze aspect and the rest is history.

If you think you're the biggest Pac-man fanatic, then you've probably never heard of Billy Mitchell. In July of 1999 die-hard Pac-Man fan Billy Mitchell attained the first-ever recorded perfect score of 3,333,360. After playing for six hours straight, he beat all of the 256 screens, ate every pellet, fruit and ghost, all using just one Pac-Man.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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