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Koji Kondo: Our Beethoven?

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Da, Da, Da. Da Dada Da. Dada dada dada da dadada. While that may sound like nonsense, if I told you it's my best attempt to spell out the Super Mario Bros. tune, it becomes immediately recognizable. If you were born after 1970, chances are you can hum the theme from the first board of that game (and probably the underground second board) like it's the most natural thing in the world. In fact, even novice gamers can probably hum the tunes from all the major Mario titles of the last twenty years, thanks to that franchise's enduring popularity. And you might be surprised to find out that every major Mario game (with the exception of Super Mario Bros. 2, the black sheep of the family thanks to it not really being a Mario game*) was scored by the same man "“ the inexhaustible Koji Kondo.

Who?

koji.jpgKoji Kondo (born 1960) was just your average Japanese composer when he stumbled into a gig at a playing card company called Nintendo in 1984. The company, in business since 1889, had decided to venture into the emerging world of videogames. These games needed music and Kondo was the man who would give it to them. While there he composed a ton of music for a ton of games, but it was his work on a strange game featuring a plumber trapped in a fungus kingdom ruled by an evil dragon (and you thought Tamagotchis were weird) that really solidified his legacy. Speaking to Wired about the game's music, he said, "I wanted to create something that had never been heard before, something not like game music at all."

Style and Restrictions

To any composer, working in the videogame world was restrictive at best. Instead of commanding a symphony, Kondo had to work with only four tracks. Not only that, he had to turn those four tracks into tunes that were enjoyable on first listen but also on second, on third, on fourth "¦ on three hundred and forty-fourth listen. A thorough Wikipedia page cites his three main influences as Latin, Jazz and Classical—but to me at least, his music transcends categorization and instead becomes the template for what videogame music should sound like. Of course, as technology advanced so did the instruments at Kondo's hands. Anyone who has played Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii will testify that the score is at least comparable to any John Williams tune out there.

Trends/Popularity

It's hard to put an exact number on how many people have listened to Kondo's music, but if you add up the sales of all the major Mario games he scored you get a figure around 100 million. So, at a minimum, 100 million people have listened to Kondo's music. That's 1/3 of the American population—and that's the bare minimum. It's also the 3rd most popular ringtone right now. Not bad for a song more than twenty years old.

For comparison's sake, Google Trends shows Beethoven to be only 40% as popular as Super Mario. Google also shows Mario beating Bach by about 132,000,000 results. Like it or not, Mario is as much a part of our collective culture as the classical greats. And if Google numbers don't convince you that Kondo should be considered one of the great composers of our time, Paul and Linda McCartney apparently knew the tune by heart and hummed it to Kondo when the three met. I mean, he's a Knight of the Realm, you have to listen to him.

Tributes

The original Mario song has been re-recorded on just about every instrument you can imagine.

We've heard it on steel drums...

...on flute...

...on a ridiculous bass guitar...

...on a ridiculous double-guitar...

...on, oddly, drums...

...on the various instruments of the Notre Dame marching band...

...and on the power of human voice alone. It's even been covered live by Phish.

But what if you didn't like Super Mario Bros.? Why would you care about Kondo's music if you hate the game? Well, when I was a wee lad there were two kinds of people: people who like Mario and people who liked Zelda. Good news, Zelda fans, Kondo did the score for that, too.

*Super Mario Bros. 2 started life as a game called Doki Doki Panic, released for Japanese audiences. Looking for a quick way to capitalize on the success of Super Mario Bros., Nintendo inserted the Mario characters into the game and released it in the US as Super Mario Bros. 2.

Streeter Seidell is the front page editor of CollegeHumor.com and a mental_floss contributor.

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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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