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11 Playsets Totally Worth $25 Million

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Last Thursday, news broke that, after five decades and 10 remodels, Barbie is selling her Malibu Dream House for $25 million. Mattel is discontinuing the iconic $170 toy and will unveil Barbie’s new pad in the fall. In honor of the soon-to-be-vintage dream house, here are 11 other epic playsets of the past that came and went—and left a mark on our little kid hearts.

1. Thundercats Electronic Cats Lair

The Thundercats’ base on Third Earth was carved out of a natural granite mountain and equipped with electronics from the wreckage of their space ship—so it’s only fitting that the 1986 plastic playset would be similarly tricked out. The toy had a pivoting cat head with a working light beam (it could shoot out light, and also recognized light from the included Mutant "Attack Sled" Vehicle), hidden trapdoors, battle stations, and huge paws that lifted to reveal an ion beam cannon.

2. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe Castle Grayskull Playset

Castle Grayskull is kind of a big deal: Without it, Prince Adam wouldn’t be able to transform into the most powerful man in the universe. Released in 1982, this interactive playset allowed kids to harness the power of Grayskull themselves. The toy had a roof-mounted laser cannon, workable elevator, a rack with set-exclusive weapons, a lockable drawbridge, and a trap door activated when the throne was turned—all the better to defend the fortress and Eternia from the evil forces of Skeletor.

3. My Little Pony Paradise Estate


After the Smooze destroyed their home in My Little Pony: The Movie, the ponies upgraded from a Dream Castle to huge and gorgeous Paradise Estate. The playset, released in 1986, was just as epic as as its TV counterpart: The pink house had ornate window shutters, a gated cobblestone patio, and four rooms—a kitchen, living room, bedroom, and nursery—each furnished with pastel-colored plastic furniture and accessories (televisions, ceiling fans, lamps, etc.) with sticker decals. There was also a pool with a diving board, for sea and land ponies alike.

4. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Technodrome

The Technodrome, which served as Krang and Shredder’s headquarters in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, was a pretty badass base—after all, it had one-foot-thick titanium armor, a huge array of weapons, and a trans-dimensional portal that allowed the villains to travel back and forth between Earth and Dimension X. Sadly, the Technodrome playset that came out in 1990 didn’t quite have that technology, but it did have a giant swiveling surveillence eye, cannons, two levels, a "brain scrambler," jail cells, and more.

5. The Real Ghostbusters Fire Station Headquarters

For New York kids, pretending to be a Ghostbuster was easy—all they had to do was head down to the Tribeca firehouse that served as the location in the films. For everybody else, the Kenner playset, released in 1987 and based on the cartoon The Real Ghostbusters, was the next best thing: It had a space for the Ecto-1, three levels, a ghost containment unit, a spinning pole that the action figures could slide down, and even came with some gooey Ecto-plazm.

6. G.I. Joe: U.S.S. Flagg

The Daddy Complex

The U.S.S. Flagg was featured in a number of G.I. Joe properties, from cartoons and comic books to commercials and action cards; it was based on a Nimitz class aircraft carrier. The playset, released in 1985, was awesome for its sheer size— over 7.5 feet long. It had an electronic public address system, missile launchers, a lifeboat, and a deck elevator, and you could fit a whole lot of Joes on it. 

7. Mighty Max Playsets

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From one of the biggest playsets to one of the smallest: When closed, Mighty Max playsets were so small you could hold them in your hand. Each set had a theme and came with two or three tiny figures. Doom Zones and Horror Heads were the first sets; they expanded into Battle Warriors, Hairy Heads, Monster Heads, and more. A few larger playsets were released, but they weren't necessarily as cool, if only because you couldn't take them to your friend's houses or the school playground (unless you had really patient, really cool parents). In 1993, a cartoon based on the toys debuted in America.

8. Jem Playsets

Screamers RetroFlashback

When Jerrica transformed into Jem—lead singer of the Holograms—she was truly, truly, truly outrageous. So, too, were the playsets associated with the Jem line of dolls, which weren’t just toys, but actual gadgets. The Backstager, introduced in 1986, was both a dressing room and an audio speaker. The Rockin’ Roadster car was an FM radio. The Star Stage was a cassette player. The Rock On Guitar had a working microphone, and when wanna-be rock stars were done jamming, they could convert the guitar into a radio station. All devices worked together and with non-Jem branded gadgets. Rock on!

9. Star Wars Death Star Space Station

Luke may have destroyed the Death Star in Star Wars, but some lucky kids could play with the Galactic Empire’s ultimate weapon thanks to Kenner Toys’ Death Star Space Station playset. The force was strong with this 20-inch-high, four level set, which was released a year after the first Star Wars film. It had a laser cannon, an elevator, an escape hatch, a retractable bridge, and a working trash compactor complete with a Dianoga. This was the largest of the Kenner Star Wars playsets, and finding a complete set is pretty difficult due to the myriad of small parts. A mint condition Death Star playset in a sealed box can go for four figures.

10. Smurfs Colorforms Playset


This wasn’t a playset in the traditional sense, but many 80s kids-turned-adults probably still have a soft spot for this toy, which debuted in 1981. It featured flat background boards of scenes from Smurf Village, plus tiny little plastic Smurf pieces that stuck to those boards like magic. (Although sometimes that stick was made stronger by licking the back of the plastic pieces.) There were three sets: Smurf Colorforms Play Set, Smurf Land Colorforms Super Deluxe Play Set, and Smurfette Colorforms Dress-Up Set.

11. A-Team Command Center


We love it when a plan—er, playset—comes together. This set, released in 1983, had an elevator, a crane, escape hatches, and a working periscope—in other words, everything a kid could want to continue the adventures of everyone’s favorite rogue military squad. The set was pretty big too, measuring 3 feet tall and over two feet long.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.