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Reading mental_floss Can Really Pay Off

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There's no question that reading a mental_floss story can pay off during Trivial Pursuit, or when you're trying to impress someone at a cocktail party. But for one lucky reader, it meant a whole lot more.

My last article, 9 Very Rare (and Very Expensive) Video Games, was reprinted by CNN.com (mental_floss has an agreement with CNN). While reading the story over there, one of the games stood out for Tanner Sandlin of Austin, Texas—Air Raid for the Atari 2600. Thanks to the cartridge's distinct blue case and "T-Handle" top, he remembered owning it when he was a kid. So he started digging through boxes of old stuff in the garage and, lo and behold, he found it—the thirteenth known copy of the game in existence. He put it up on eBay and the bids started rolling in.

Sandlin bought the game when he was 11 or 12 years old at a store called Tuesday Morning in Arlington, Texas. Tuesday Morning bought overstocked or undersold goods from other retailers and sold the items at a discount. Sandlin paid less than $10.00, possibly as low as $5.00, for Air Raid in 1984 or 1985. This is important because none of the other twelve people who have Air Raid cartridges were the original owners—they bought them at auction, secondhand stores, or through private collectors. Learning a collectible item's "provenance," or owner history, is key to proving its authenticity. Since Sandlin was the original owner, his cartridge had more street cred than one found in a box at the local thrift store.

Oddly enough, Sandlin remembered that this much sought after game wasn't really all that great. In fact, the only reason he still had it was because it was so bad. He and his friends used to borrow games from each other all the time—sometimes you'd get your game back, sometimes you wouldn't, and that was OK. But no one wanted to keep Air Raid, so it kept coming back to him. He's not complaining now.

While it's impressive that Sandlin had the thirteenth known copy of Air Raid, he later found that he still had the original packaging for the game as well. This changed everything. Why? Because his was the only known Air Raid box in the world, making it the only known complete copy of the game in existence. Tanner Sandlin had just become a part of video gaming history.

But he couldn't start counting his fortune just yet. If you're willing to pay thousands of dollars for a video game, you're going to make sure it's legitimate. Sandlin knew this, so he went straight to an expert, Albert Yarusso of AtariAge.com, a forum for fans of anything Atari, to get his professional opinion on the authenticity of the find. The two both live in Austin, so Yarusso met with Sandlin and examined both the game and the box in person. After some thorough research, Yarusso declared everything was real (or the most impressive forgery he'd ever seen). With expert confirmation behind him, Sandlin pulled his stand-alone cartridge auction on eBay and replaced it with the complete game package. The starting price was $.50.

Unfortunately, Yarusso's announcement came on April 1, 2010. He's been known for pulling some pretty elaborate and convincing April Fool's Day pranks on the website in the past, so at first the retrogamers on AtariAge were skeptical. They cited spelling errors on the box that seemed "too perfect" and the fact that it said it was the debut game from Men-A-Vision seemed sketchy at best. While the timing was bad, Yarusso and Sandlin stuck to their guns. When there was no big reveal of a hoax in the subsequent days, collectors swarmed to Sandlin's eBay auction. The first bid alone jumped the price from $.50 to $3,000.

Sold!

Sandlin's eBay auction ended on April 10, 2010 at about 10:15PM (EST). With only 5 minutes to go, the highest bid was $14,600. It sat at this price until the very last few seconds, when it jumped to $17,528, and then made a giant leap to $31,500. The final bid was $31,600.

This sets a new record price for the game, blowing away the previous record of $3,000. That also makes it the second-highest price ever paid for a video game cartridge, just behind the $43,300 paid for a factory-sealed copy of Stadium Events for the Nintendo back in February.

I asked Sandlin what he intended to do with the money and he wasn't quite sure yet. He did know that he wanted to buy something tangible; something he could point at it and say, "I bought that with a video game!" You can buy a whole lot of mental_floss magazine gift subscriptions for $31,600.

We here at mental_floss are incredibly excited to have been a part of this amazing, somewhat crazy moment. Thanks for reading, Tanner, and congratulations on your record-breaking sale!

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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