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15 Memorable mental_floss Moments of 2011

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A lot of exciting things happened in the mental_floss universe in 2011. Here are the 15 we could remember.

1. We Helped Solve a Back to the Future Mystery

Back in August, we threw out a question for discussion:

"Is it ever explained why Marty hangs out with Doc Brown? He's just in Doc's house to start the movie and it's just implied that they're good friends." —Brett Savage

Back to the Future co-creator Bob Gale was kind enough to respond:

Okay, from the horse’s mouth (yes, I’m the horse — er, co-writer, co-creator): We never explained it in the movie. But the history of the characters that Bob Zemeckis and I created is this…

For years, Marty was told that Doc Brown was dangerous, a crackpot, a lunatic. So, being a red-blooded American teenage boy, age 13 or 14, he decided to find out just why this guy was so dangerous. Marty snuck into Doc’s lab, and was fascinated by all the cool stuff that was there. when Doc found him there, he was delighted to find that Marty thought he was cool and accepted him for what he was. Both of them were the black sheep in their respective environments. Doc gave Marty a part-time job to help with experiments, tend to the lab, tend to the dog, etc.

And that’s the origin of their relationship.
— Bob Gale

This was all very exciting, but someone over at Slate thought the whole thing was a (bizarre) hoax:

"No one on the Internet knows you're a dog, or whether you're really Bob Gale ... I've seen enough Internet hoaxes to say I'll wait for a picture of him holding a sign that says 'Yes, it's me' with today's newspaper before I buy it completely."

Our new best friend Bob Gale, with whom I'd emailed before posting his original comment to make sure he wasn't, in fact, a dog, was willing to oblige:

2. We Acquired an Office Eel

And in just a few short months, that office eel made the masthead:

Not sure how veteran office dog Leo felt about this. But Leo was the star of our New Year's card.

Watch this rivalry play out in 2012.

3. We Watched Ransom Riggs Become a Pretty Big Deal

Ransom Riggs had been writing for mental_floss since 2006, and we knew it was only a matter of time before he got too big and famous for us. This year, his debut YA novel, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, made the New York Times Best Seller List, and it sounds like Tim Burton might direct the Miss Peregrine movie. Ransom is also turning his popular Talking Pictures series into a book. We promise we'll guilt him into coming back and contributing an occasional photo essay or short film in 2012. For now, you can follow him on Twitter: @RansomRiggs.

4. We Made a Cameo on Curb Your Enthusiasm...

Sadly, Larry David didn't draw any swastikas inside us.

5. ...and Bored to Death...

6. ...and Nikki Sixx's Twitter Account

We're hoping to collaborate on something in 2012. Maybe a Christmas album.

7. We Gave My 2-Year-Old Daughter Her 15 Minutes (Well, 3:55) of Fame

Last January, I posted a clip of my two-year-old playing with her U.S. Presidents placemat alongside our "can you guess the president by his placemat portrait?" quiz. Gawker re-posted the video, and soon it showed up on the Yahoo! and AOL homepages and The NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.

A few weeks later, Charlotte appeared on Rachael Ray for Presidents' Day.

Here's her segment. She's recently turned her attention to counterfeiting.

8. We Joined Forces With Melissa & Doug

We're teaming up with educational toy giant Melissa & Doug for a mental_floss children's line. Coming soon!

9. We Filled Over 12,000 Orders This Holiday Season

A week before Christmas, the elves in our Ohio office announced that they'd filled 10,000 orders this holiday season. Co-founders Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur and e-commerce guru Renier Fee dispatched themselves to Cleveland with cake for a surprise "thank you for not going crazy during all this madness!" party.

So let's give it up for Amy, British Melanie, Cathy, Cheryl, Dana, Elizabeth, Kathy, Katie, Young Melanie, Mo, Paul, Marvelous Melanie and Toby, who ended up filling over 12,000 holiday orders. You guys deserve two cakes.

And I wish I could share a cake with all 12,000 of you who shopped in the mental_floss store these last couple months. This is one of those situations where the phrase "we couldn't have done it without you" is entirely appropriate.

10. We Were Named One of the (90) Best Twitter Accounts

The good people at BuzzFeed made a list of the Top 90 Best Twitter Accounts, and we made the cut. Thanks for all the retweets and #FollowFriday love! If your New Year's Resolution includes learning lots of random facts (or following more interesting people on Twitter), @mental_floss would be happy to have you.

11. We Partied With Flossers in Memphis, Indy, Columbus, Durham and Birmingham

The Mental Floss Trivia Show made several stops across the country in 2011. Rumors are swirling that we'll be on the road again in 2012. (I'm looking at you, Austin.)

12. We Put Out Our 10th Anniversary Book

Order yours today!

13. We Joined the Dennis Publishing Universe

Back in March, our little media empire became part of Dennis Publishing, making it possible to find funding for important endeavors. Such as...

14. We Made George Washington's Eggnog

15. We've Decided to Listen to Everyone

These are the three questions we're asked most often:

• When will you get a mobile version of the website?

• Why don't you guys publish the magazine monthly?

• Why aren't you releasing any apps?

All three of those things will be addressed at some point in 2012. We also hope to follow the eggnog recipes of several other historical figures this year. Thanks for the support, and for making it all the way to the bottom of our self-indulgent year-in-review!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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