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6 Celebrities & Their Bizarre Video Games

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The unusual news broke earlier this month that Judge Greg Mathis of daytime TV fame was getting his own video game. Mathis "Detroit" Street Judge will be presented through the eyes of LaRon Washington, who has just been released from prison with two strikes and the threat of a life sentence if he doesn't turn his life around. But the game won't just be a first-person community service game "“ it will feature action as Washington runs from Detroit gangs that want him dead for a murder he didn't commit. Mathis says he sees the game as an opportunity for kids to get involved in the gang lifestyle without actually joining a gang and hopes it will encourage them to stay clean.


Still, Mathis may not be the most unusual star to get a video game. Here are 5 more celebs who probably shouldn't have gone digital.

1. Michael Jackson

With Michael Jackson at the helm of a computer game, you know it's going to be weird. But Moonwalker seems beyond the realm of imagination. Released in conjunction with Jackson's collection of videos of the same name, Moonwalker featured Jackson battling the evil Mr. Big to rescue kidnapped children (you just can't make this up). Jackson is assisted by his chimp Bubbles, who can also turn into a robotic version of the singer. The game was actually well-received, especially for the signature move, Dance Magic, where the King of Pop busted out some of his signature moves, killing all the bad guys around him.

2. Shaquille O'Neal

ShaqFu.JPGFrom a rap career to Kazaam, Shaq has always tried to brand his image outside of the basketball court. But his venture into video games, Shaq Fu, was particularly ill-advised. Widely hailed as one of the worst games ever, Shaq Fu saw the star being transported to another dimension where he had to use kung fu moves to rescue a boy from a mummy named Sett-Ra. Besides the incomprehensible story, players complained that the game was impossible to play thanks to a difficult hit detection. Now the game regularly lands on all-time worst lists, but Shaq continues to use the phrase "Shaq Fu," because, well, who's going to stop him?


Shaq wasn't the only NBA star to put his face to a terrible video game. The "˜90s other big star, Michael Jordan, was the star of Michael Jordan in Chaos in the Windy City, which featured him using magic basketballs to battle villains and rescue his All-Star Game teammates.

3. Journey

Years before Guitar Hero brought rock to the gaming world, Journey was starring in two rock-themed games. In the simply titled Journey arcade game, players could take the form of each of Journey's five members then travel to different planets to rescue the band's instruments. Once the instruments were brought back safely, the band played a concert. Their second game, Journey Escape had the band trying to get to their Scarab Escape Vehicle without getting mobbed by groupies, photographers or promoters. It's unclear which game is more fictional: the interplanetary voyage or the threat of Journey getting completely overtaken by their groupies.

4. E.T.

et1.jpgTrying to capitalize on the popularity of Steven Spielberg's E.T., Atari rushed a game starring the extraterrestrial through production in a whopping six weeks, bypassing audience testing and much of the critical planning. The result? A game that was voted the all-time worst by Electronic Gaming Monthly. E.T. the Extraterrestrial let players be the lovable alien, who wandered through levels trying to retrieve three pieces of a device that would let him phone home. He's aided along the way by energy-boosting Reese's Pieces, continuing the subtle product placement from the movie. The game sold pretty well, but was ultimately panned by audiences and critics. Legend has it that Atari even buried millions of the game's cartridges in a landfill in New Mexico.

5. General George Custer

It may not be fair to penalize General Custer, since he was in no way involved in this game. But it still merits a mention. In Custer's biography, there's plenty of action, patriotism and pride, but not enough sex. Thankfully, Mystique filled in the last part with their erotic game starring the general (warning: the link includes some very poorly animated nudity). Custer's Revenge simply had players taking the role of a visibly aroused Custer battling through enemy fire to reach a naked Indian woman tied to a cactus. Not surprisingly, the game was a public relations disaster "“ women's rights group protested the apparent rape in the game and most stores either refused to sell it or didn't display it. As if the content weren't enough to turn you off of the game, the graphics were also pretty terrible.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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