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12 Things You Might Not Know About World of Warcraft

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Last month, Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft turned 8—which means that kids who started playing it when they were in middle school are now graduating from college. (Excluding the serious players, who will probably need a couple of extra years to catch up on their classwork.) In that time, a lot of weird things have happened in Azeroth (the game’s world) and on Earth (our world) as a result of the game’s enduring popularity. Here are a few of them.

1. Azeroth, USA

Azeroth is operated from multiple AT&T data centers around the globe. This means if you’re going to build a mysterious cupboard in order to crawl into a magical world, San Diego, California or Dallas, Texas are good places to start. (Don’t expect Mr. Tumnus to be waiting, though.) Other real-world locations for Azeroth include Frankfurt, Germany; Paris, France; and Stockholm, Sweden.

2. Blizzard is not impressed with your l33t gaming system.

Performance on the backend is essential to a player’s enjoyment in slaying such delights as Archimonde the Defiler, left hand of Sargeras, the Great Enemy of All Life. As one representative of AT&T said, “A couple hundred milliseconds can make a big difference in the performance of a game.” To accommodate major updates to the game, Blizzard contracts AT&T to implement Synaptic Hosting, which doubles available bandwidth to compensate for increased traffic.

What kind of hardware are we talking about? It’s always changing, obviously, but Data Center Knowledge, a trade journal that covers such things, reported that as of 2009, World of Warcraft required 13,250 server blades, 75,000 cores, 112.5 terabytes of memory, and 1.2 petabytes of storage.

3. “You tell Stockholm I’m coming, and the Twisting Nether’s comin’ with me!”

Following the release of its fourth expansion pack, World of Warcraft’s subscriber base climbed over the 10 million mark. Earlier this year, the game “only” had 9.1 million subscribers. At its peak, it had 12 million paying customers, and today holds the Guinness World Record for most subscribers to a massively multiplayer online role playing game. Its present numbers place Azeroth’s population on par with Sweden, so they had better watch themselves.

4. Celebrities are addicted, too.

It’s possible (though let’s face it, highly unlikely) that the dwarf standing next to you has an entry in the Internet Movie Database. Celebrities who have spent some time delivering Scalding Mornbrew to Durnan Furcutter in Anvilmar include: Aubrey Plaza; Vin Diesel; Aron Eisenberg (Nog from Deep Space Nine!); Yao Ming; Mila Kunis; Felicia Day; Curt Shilling; and Drew Curtis, who should consider throwing a link to this article.

5. “The chair recognizes the distinguished gentleorc from Orgrimmar.”

World of Warcraft players are also ascending to positions of power, which might one day prevent the great Azeroth-Sweden War. In 2012, Colleen Lachowicz ran for state senate in Maine. Her political opposition ran a campaign to discredit her. The reason? Ms. Lachowicz plays World of Warcraft. They even created a website specifically to warn unsuspecting voters of her double life. Printed in italics (!) next to an image of Ms. Lachowicz’s face morphing into an orc is the line: “Maine needs a State Senator that lives in the real world, not in Colleen’s fantasy world.” It might be the best site on the Internet.

Today, that’s Senator Lachowicz to you.

5. 'Twas the feast of Great-Winter / And all through the land / All the races were running / With snowballs in hand.

Like most civilizations, the residents of Azeroth have holidays and important historical events to celebrate and commemorate. They are totally different from our own, however, and players often need time to adjust. On Noblegarden, for example, painted eggs are hidden around cities. They contain various treats. At the close of the Midsummer Fire Festival, great fireworks are set off all across Azeroth. Headless Horsemen gallop through towns during Hallow’s End. (Slay one and you’ll find his carved pumpkin head.) Candy buckets also dot the cities, and warriors can reach in to find either a trick or a treat. A few weeks after Pilgrim’s Bounty, when food is shared and turkeys are hunted, is the Feast of Winter Veil, when holiday cheer spreads across the land, gifts appear under under trees, and the Abominable Greench is up to no good.

6. Well of course someone had to die from playing it.

In 2005, a Beijing man playing under the name “Snowly” geared up for a particularly challenging quest, and proceeded to play for several days straight. He was found dead not long after. In New Taipei City, Taiwan, a 23 year old died after playing for 23 hours straight in an Internet cafe. According to one report, “He fell on the table to sleep several times, but woke up again to continue playing the game.” Until he didn’t.

7. The inevitable foreign knockoff.

As a rule, if you make something good, someone is going to make a shameless, shoddy, uh, homage to it. When it premiered, I’m sure some denied that Chinese game World of Fight had any interest in World of Warcraft’s traffic. And its website? It’s a quirk of fate that wofchina.com so resembled wowchina.com. There are only so many words, after all. Coincidences happen.

8. “Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are.” - Brillat-Savarin

If memory serves me right, slaying liches can leave a warrior with a healthy appetite. Azeroth is like a giant cooking arena known for its culinary delights and ingredients of the finest quality. Avid players with culinary skill have gathered, and managed to realize those recipes on Earth. Baked salmon. Soft banana bread. Ogri'la Chicken Fingers. Which cuisine will reign supreme? The heat will be on!

9. It’s good to be the king of Azeroth.

Blizzard has done well for itself with World of Warcraft. At its height in 2010, the game took in $1.23 billion. In 2009, it took in $1.24 billion; 2008 was a slow year, banking a pittance of $1.15 billion. The game costs quite a bit to operate—$240 million—but the company still pockets a cool billion dollars on a good year.

10. The day the plague wiped out Ironforge.

Apparently, people in Azeroth behave a lot like they behave in the real world. That’s why the “Corrupted Blood” outbreak in World of Warcraft is so interesting to researchers. In 2005, a monster named Hakkar the Soulflayer, Blood God of the Gurubashi Trolls (what was his mother thinking?) infected a player with a spell called Corrupted Blood, which both drains characters of life, and is highly contagious. The idea was to weaken and ultimately kill everyone fighting in the dungeon. After someone was infected and teleported to the populous over-world, however, the disease went nova and a pandemic ensued. Try as they might, Blizzard couldn’t quite stop the plague, and characters were wiped out on a massive scale. Players went into a strange and interesting survivalist mode.

Apparently, when the SARS epidemic broke out, people behaved in much the same way, leading researchers to study the sociological effects of Corrupted Blood. Likewise, scientists presented game developers with plans for how better to manage a virtual epidemic in the future.

11. Maybe that’s why the Tin Man wanted an oilcan.

The Chinese government is not going to stand idly by while unsanitary skeletons and animal bones festoon Azeroth. When World of Warcraft was updated for China, all such items were either removed from the game, or given a nice meaty wrapper. Players mounted a “Save the Bones” campaign, but it didn’t go anywhere. Additionally, blood was recolored black (consequently, no Vulcans are allowed in Azeroth) and some of the scarier monster icons were replaced with wooden boxes.

12. World of Warcraft by the numbers.

According to MMORPG Realm, it took 150 developers four years to write the game’s 5.5 million lines of code; create its 30,000 items; design and build its 1400 locations; plan and implement its 7600 missions; and give life to 5300 non-player characters.

Only 22% of players are located in the United States; Asia is where the action is, comprising 48% of the game’s subscriber base. 80% of players are male, and they’re most likely to play as humans, the most popular race in the game.

For 12-12-12, we’ll be posting twenty-four '12 lists' throughout the day. Check back 12 minutes after every hour for the latest installment, or see them all here.

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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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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]

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