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The Quick 10: 10 Facts About Carmen Sandiego

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As much as I love the Wii, it's lacking a game I have been craving for a couple of years now: Carmen Sandiego. I spent a ridiculous amount of time on the old computer at the public library playing Carmen Sandiego on floppy disk until we finally got it for our home computer. And when the T.V. show came out? Amazing. Anyway, until Nintendo satiates my Carmen Sandiego needs, I'm going to have to make do with this list of Carmen Sandiego trivia.

1. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego was first released in 1985 for the Apple II.

2. An early version of the computer game had Henry VII running around England collecting treasures.

3. Maybe this is common knowledge, but I didn't know it: Carmen used to be an ACME agent before defecting to V.I.L.E. (the Villains' International League of Evil).

4. The list of improbable things stolen by Carmen and her V.I.L.E. Henchmen included the Ngorongoro Crater, the La Brea Tar Pits, the entire Great Wall of China, the Panama Canal, the Dead Sea, Paris' Fall Fashion Collection, the Great Barrier Reef, all of Idaho's potatoes, Old Faithful, all of the George Washington faces from $1 bills, the Vienna Boys Choir's voices, the Trojan Horse, the wigs of London's judges and barristers, the sun, Mardi Gras, the Internet and the Spanish letter ñ. Busy crooks!!

5. Carmen's middle name is Isabela.

6. The animated series Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego featured legendary actress Rita Moreno as the voice of Carmen.

7. One episode of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego was never aired, because the contestant fell down in the bonus round and broke her arm.

8. If you watched the show, surely you remember the phrase that kicked off the theme song at the end: "Do it, Rockapella!" In addition to Carmen Sandiego, Rockapella "did it" for lots of commercials, including Taco Bell, Coca-Cola, Doritos and Folgers.

9. The eleven members of Carmen's posse on the original show included Vic the Slick, The Contessa, Eartha Brute, Top Grunge, Robocrook, Patty Larceny, Double Trouble (twins), Kneemoi, Wonder Rat and Sarah Nade.

10. At one point, there were plans for a Carmen Sandiego movie. Sandra Bullock was going to star.

And, because I want you guys to have this stuck in your head for the rest of the day like I do, here are the lyrics to the song. You can thank me later.

Well, she sneaks around the world from Kiev to Carolina
She's a sticky-fingered filcher from Berlin down to Belize
She'll take you for a ride on a slowboat to China
Tell me: where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?

Steal their Seoul in South Korea, make Antarctica cry "uncle"
From the Red Sea to Greenland they'll be singing the blues
Well they never Arkansas her steal the Mekong from the jungle
Tell me: where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?

She goes from Nashville to Norway, Bonaire to Zimbabwe,
Chicago to Czechoslovakia, and back!

Well she'll ransack Pakistan and run a scam in Scandinavia
Then she'll stick 'em up Down Under and go pickpocket Perth
She put the "Miss" in "misdemeanor" when she stole the beans from Lima
Tell me: where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?

Tell me: where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? (x6)
Watch your back

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]