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The Quick 10: 10 Toy Crazes

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I don't have a kid (yet"¦ give me another five months or so), and I don't have any nieces or nephews or friends with kids over the age of three. So I'm not really understanding this whole Zhu Zhu thing. Apparently it's the must-have toy this year. That I understand. I was working retail when the Tickle Me Elmo craze was at its height. Time magazine has assembled a list of the Top Ten Toy crazes ever, and you'd better believe that giggly red Muppet makes the top five. Here's the whole list:

zhu1. Zhu Zhu Pets.
The Year: 2009
The Toy: Zhu Zhu pets are little robotic hamsters that basically do three things: coo/purr, "explore" and sleep. They sound like a stuffed version of Tamagotchis to me (don't remember those? Skip to #4). The little furry machines retail for a scant $10 each, but demand is so high that Zhu Zhu pets are reselling for nearly $100 on eBay.
The enemy: So far? Pet stores. Why buy a real hamster when you could spend $10 on one that doesn't crap, stink, bite, or require real food?

2. Bratz Dolls.
The Year:
The Toy: You thought Barbie was a bad influence? When Bratz entered the scene in 2001, they made Barbie look like she belonged on Little House.
The Enemy: Parents weren't crazy about them, finding their tight and revealing clothing and copious amounts of makeup, um, a little adult.

3. Furby.
The Year:
The Toy: This fuzzy robot (hmm"¦ sounds suspiciously like Zhu Zhu Pets) was appealing to kids because the toy could "learn" English. Part of the reason it was such a craze is that magazines were impressed with the toy's learning ability as well - Time itself was hyping up the gadget before it was even on the market after seeing it at a toy convention.
The Enemy: Katie Couric. Yeah, they talk, but they talk incessantly, irritating parents everywhere. While interviewing a representative from manufacturer Tiger on The Today Show, Couric snipped, "Can you get them to shut up now?"

tamagotchi4. Tamagotchi.
The Year:
The Toy: About the size of a large-ish keychain, Tamagotchis were kind of like a super low-tech Nintendogs. The hand-held electronic egg put kids in charge of a pixel-y little creature, with responsibilities from feeding it to entertaining it to putting it to bed.
The Enemy: Teachers. If you didn't feed and entertain your Tamagotchi, it would "die," sometimes in just four to six hours, causing a lot of faux-pet owners to bring the infernal thing to school. As a result, Tamagotchis were banned in many schools.

5. Tickle Me Elmo
The Year:
The Toy: A stuffed Elmo that LOLed infectiously.
The Enemy: Parents. Every kid wanted one of these and supply just did not meet demand. What went for $29 in stores was going for up to $2,000 online. Needless to say, a lot of parents had to disappoint their kids at Christmas that year.

beanie6. Beanie Babies.
The Year:
The Toy: Small, fairly unremarkable bean bag creatures.
The Enemy: The FBI. Beanie Babies were so sought-after and collectible that counterfeits were being produced at an alarming rate. In the late "˜90s, the FBI spent time busting the perpetrators. I'm sure people who enter the FBI as a profession do so because they want to spend time investigating the production of fake plushies.

7. POGs.
The Year:
The Toy: Some cardboard disks with pictures printed on them. Really. But the variation in pictures meant that they were collectible, so of course people went nuts for them. The way you played POGs was kind of like marbles in that you could win the other player's POGs if you were playing for keeps.
The Enemy: Again, schools. Because you could potentially "win" POGs, some schools considered it gambling and banned the game from their grounds.

8. Cabbage Patch Kids.
The Year:
The Toy: Pudgy-faced dolls.
The Enemy: Garbage Pail Kids. After Cabbage Patch Kids came out and were such a hit, the Topps company parodied the wholesome dolls by creating a trading card featuring a very similar looking version that did terrible things and had names like "Adam Bomb." The Cabbage Patch people were not happy. They sued and settled out of court; Topps agreed to make their characters a little less Cabbage Patch-like.

9. Rubik's Cube.
The Year:
The Toy: C'mon, you know the Rubik's Cube.
The Enemy: People who are easily frustrated solving puzzles. I'm not going to name names, but I know this girl who peeled the colored stickers off and stuck them back on to act like she had solved the cube. The stickers' wrinkled edges, crooked placement and decreased stickiness were dead giveaways to my mom. I mean, her mom.

ROCK10. Pet Rocks.
The Year:
The Toy: A rock. Seriously. A rock.
The Enemy: Kids who really, really wanted a puppy for Christmas.

What was your must-have toy of yesteryear? Mine was definitely a stuffed Fievel. I adored An American Tail and knew I would die, just absolutely die, if the young Mr. Mousekewitz didn't appear under our Christmas tree. Luckily, he did, and I still have him. Sure, he's missing his tail, his pants, his hat and 99% of the fuzz on his nose, but I still plan on passing him down to Baby Conradt in May. Maybe I'll sew him some new pants by then.

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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]