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The Quick 10: The Oregon Trail Computer Game

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Despite my video and computer game obsessions of recent years "“ Guitar Hero, The Sims and World of Warcraft among them "“ if I had to rank the best games ever, Oregon Trail would still make my top 10 (along with Carmen Sandiego, obviously). In fact, I just spent way too much time playing it in the name of "research." Here's what that "“ and some actual research "“ uncovered.

fire1. Although you probably played it in the late "˜80s or early "˜90s, the game has been around since 1971, when a trio of student teachers from Minnesota cobbled together a program for a history class one of them was teaching. Three years later, one of the teachers took a job at Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, a company that developed educational software. He allowed Oregon Trail to be uploaded to MECC's database and it spread across the state like cholera. By 1985 the game was so popular that it was released on floppy disk (remember those?) on a national level.

2.In the original version, players didn't get to aim a gun and hunt for buffalo and bear. Instead, the "shooting" happened by onomatopoeia "“ players had to type "Bang" and "Pow" as fast as possible. The faster they typed, the more meat they received. Misspelled words resulted in a failed hunting expedition.

3. The diseases the members of your party could potentially die of were dysentery, cholera, drowning, fever, a snakebite, typhoid, exhaustion, broken limbs and measles, among other things.

4. In 1994, MECC belatedly followed up the smash hit Oregon Trail with the decidedly less thrilling Yukon Trail. I should know; I definitely owned it. It was still enjoyable, but it was no Oregon Trail. Players would head out from Seattle in 1897 and take a ferry to one of two towns. Then, like the Oregon Trail, there are rivers to be forged and obstacles to be conquered. But along the way, wannabe gold diggers stumble across famous figures like Jack London, Sam Steele and Nellie Cashman. Then you get to claim and area and start panning for gold.

5. The Oregon Trail II was released in 1996. I must have lost interest by this point because I don't recall this game at all. It was a much more advanced version of the first "“ for instance, after selecting an occupation for your main player, you could spend extra points to give them extra skills such as botany or medicine. And there were many more occupations to choose from "“ in the original, the options are few: banker, farmer or carpenter. The updated version had more than 20 careers to choose from, including journalist. Call me crazy, but I feel like writing skills aren't going to really come in handy when your oxen fall sick or you bust a wheel on your Conestoga. The 1996 version also allowed players to select from various skill levels and starting towns.

numbers6. MECC was behind some of the other fascinating classroom computer games of the "˜80s. You might remember Odell Lake, Number Munchers, Lemonade Stand, Spellevator and Storybook Weaver.
7. When someone from your party died, you could make a custom epitaph for them. You might remember that sometimes you would see someone else's tombstone while on your travels, specifically someone named "Andy" whose epitaph read, "Here lies andy; peperony and chease." What?! The story is that a kid named Andy was particularly amused by those Tombstone pizza commercials that growled, "What do you want on your Tombstone?" The spelling-challenged Andy answered, appropriately, "peperony and chease." So how did it get on your copy? Well, his game was saved on a disk that ended up being a disk that was very popularly pirated later on. So there you go.

8. Assuming you didn't die, right away, the landmarks you would hit on your journey included Fort Kearney, Independence Rock, Chimney Rock, Fort Laramie, South Pass, and the Columbia River.

9. Your score at the end of the game is determined by a lot of things "“ your profession, how many members of your party made it all the way through, the health of the remaining members, the time you made it in, the supplies you have left and how much leftover money you have. The world record right now is apparently 53,350 points by Craig Ian Weibman.

grave10. My personal favorite strategy was to give the least amount of supplies humanly possible, set off for the Trail so we would be traveling in the dead of winter, and set the pace to "grueling." Only the strong survive"¦ which apparently doesn't include me.

And because I love to help you guys procrastinate when you should be working or studying or doing something productive, here you go "“ you can now play Oregon Trail for free on Virtual Apple. If you haven't played it in years, I highly recommend clicking the link "“ the feeling of glee you will get when you see the terrible graphics and the delight you will feel when the first member of your party dies from dysentery is SO WORTH IT. Good luck, pioneers, and be sure to share your Oregon Trail nostalgia in the comments.

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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]