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Sharing My Love For (Plus 9 Fun Facts About) The Sims

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If you read mental_floss with any regularity, you already know that I get easily addicted to certain types of video games. My husband can't get enough of FIFA Soccer '08 for the Wii. I'm so not interested in games like that. Or games like Call of Duty. But I'm scarily obsessed with Guitar Hero, Rock Band and World of Warcraft. And during my freshman year of college, long before any of those games came about, I was holed up in my dorm room playing The Sims.

Creator Will Wright says the game is like having a virtual dollhouse to play with. And he's absolutely right. But it's strange that I like The Sims so much, because I never liked playing with dolls. (In fact, I find them rather terrifying.) At first, it was just fun building houses and decorating them. Then I got into the positively addicting habit of making and naming Sims after people I knew. It was fun to see if the Sim versions of us would interact like we did in real life. Plus it was always fun to kill your friends off. "Hey, Courtney, I accidentally built a room with no door around your Sim and it starved to death. Sorry about that." This might mean I have psychotic tendencies. Whatever. Also, with my love of trivia, I liked finding Easter eggs and inside jokes scattered throughout the game, such as the "See Me, Feel Me" pinball machine.

Of course, just when the fun of the Sims was starting to wear off, Maxis started rolling out with the expansion packs. And you'd better believe I bought all of them.

Livin' Large was the first expansion pack and added more objects and careers.

"¢ House Party added rave-like objects like a lighted dance floor, a mechanical bull, a go-go cage and a DJ booth. If you have a rockin' party (enough people, enough food, etc.), Drew Carey might show up. You can't talk to him or anything, though, you can only watch him work the crowd and talk on his cell phone. If you're having a boring party, a mime shows up and annoys your guests until they all leave.

Hot Date allowed your Sims to, well, go on Hot Dates. This was especially fun for messing with your real-life friends.

Vacation allowed Sims to take skiing holidays and camping trips (among other destinations).

Unleashed introduced the world of pets.

Superstar was one of my favorites. You could become an actor or singer and become celebrities, complete with groupies. If you are good enough to win a "Simmy", Marilyn Monroe hops out of a limo and presents you with an award.

"¢ I thought I would really like Makin' Magic, an expansion pack that capitalized on the Harry Potter trend by letting Sims cast spells and make potions and brews. But it was, eh, only OK.

More Sims trivia:
1) NPCs (non-player characters) included the Grim Reaper, Santa Claus, the Tragic Clown (ugh), strippers (yup), Avril Lavigne, Andy Warhol, Christina Aguilera, Cameron Diaz, Jon Bon Jovi, Sarah McLachlan and a Genie. vamp reaper

2) Sim teens get zits if their hygiene levels drop.

3) Social workers will come and take away babies if your Sim isn't caring for them properly.

4) The NPC character Mortimer Goth is most likely based on Vincent Price.

5) Depending on how many expansion packs you have, you can become a ghost, a vampire, a zombie or a werewolf. Oh, you can also be abducted by aliens.

6) In The Sims 2, Sims can get pregnant (prior to the Sims 2, if your Sim has a baby it just magically appears. Hmm). The action "Try for a Baby" is available when your Sim is in a changing booth, a car, a photo booth or cuddling in a bed or a hot tub. Male Sims can get pregnant if they are abducted by aliens.alien
7) The babble-language that all Sims speak is called "Simish".

8) In The Sims 2, your Sim could be randomly struck and killed by a satellite falling from the sky. This is pretty rare, but it does happen.

9) There is a Sims movie in the works, which I am kind of uncomfortable with.

Anyway, at some point my PC crashed and I ended up getting a Mac. Being a poor college student, I really wasn't up for buying everything over again for the Mac. So I fell out of my Sims habit. I did eventually get The Sims 2 for the Mac, but I guess my addiction just burned itself out. Until now.

A couple of weekends ago I got My Sims for the Wii. It's really similar to Animal Crossing, if you've ever played that. You're in charge of a town and everything that goes with it. When a new NPC moves in, instead of going to Target like every normal person would, the Sim comes to you and asks you to build them a bed. Well, after you build their house, that is. One Sim (Sir Vincent) asked me to build him a museum. I did, and then he said that UPS had lost all of his displays, so could I build him a sarcophagus?

I was more than happy to help, and when it was complete he said something like, "Wonderful! I can't even tell the difference between this and the real thing! ...and neither will my customers." Shady Sims. You just can't trust them.

Well, are there any other Sims addicts out there? Bella Goth fans? Am I hopelessly outdated?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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