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20 Things You Didn't Know About the Console Wars

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Video games were supposed to be a fad whose time had come and gone with Pong. Then Nintendo happened, and the niche arcade manufacturer burst into America's living rooms with the NES. After years of Nintendo's dominance, rival Sega attempted to dethrone the behemoth with aggressive pricing, clever marketing, and a blue hedgehog on speed. Here are some tidbits of what happened during the early days of this unlikely battle, as uncovered by Blake J. Harris in his book Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation.

1. Nintendo started off as a playing card company in 1889. Loosely translated, Nintendo means "leave luck to heaven."

2. Sega began in the 1960s as a merger between two jukebox manufacturers. The name is a condensed portmanteau of "service games."

3. In 1989, Nintendo launched Nintendo Power, a publication that featured video game hints, previews, and news. It became the fastest magazine to ever reach one million paid subscribers.

See Also: 25 Things We Learned in the First Issue of Nintendo Power

4. Howard Phillips, Nintendo's warehouse manager, had a knack for mastering the company's video games. This didn't go unnoticed, and soon the affable, bow tie-wearing Phillips became Nintendo's official "Game Master" and spokesman. He even starred in his own comic strip in Nintendo Power.

5. In order to guarantee constant demand for the NES, it was Nintendo's policy to always under-stock—they purposefully made fewer units than they could sell in order to keep the public wanting more.

6. Mario was named after Mario Segale, Nintendo of America's landlord. No one at the company had ever actually met Segale.

7. As Sega was struggling to compete with Nintendo, their Japanese division was adamant about producing a game version of Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, the schlock film from director Lloyd Kaufman. Sega of America had to repeatedly rebuff them until it became a running joke.

8. Sega spent millions of dollars to develop a game featuring Buster Douglas, the boxer who upset Mike Tyson to become the heavyweight champion of the world. The game was to be released right after Douglas' bout with Evander Holyfield, and when Douglas was humiliated in the third round, Sega had to regroup to acknowledge the overmatched spokesman's defeat in their advertising campaign.

9. In 1982, Universal Pictures accused Nintendo of copyright infringement, citing Donkey Kong's similarities to the 1933 film King Kong. The studio demanded that all profits from the popular game go to them, and promised a long legal battle if they didn't acquiesce. Howard Lincoln, Nintendo of America's lawyer, decided to take on the huge corporation in court knowing he had a card up his sleeve: For all their tough talk, Universal never even secured a copyright for King Kong in the first place. Nintendo won the case, and they were awarded over one million dollars in legal fees and damages.

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10. The original design for Sonic the Hedgehog came from Japan and depicted the critter as "villainous and crude," with "sharp fangs, a spiked collar, and an electric guitar." He also had a scantily clad, buxom human girlfriend named Madonna. Sega of America had to delicately push back, as their Japanese counterparts were all-in on their design.

11. Developers hated working with Nintendo due to the company's stringent policies. Companies had to pay Nintendo for the cartridges themselves, pay a licensing fee, and, on top of all that, agree to only make five titles a year.

12. Nintendo was well known for their strong-arm tactics. When Tengen, a game developer, invented a work-around so they could make games for the NES without having to pay a licensing fee, Nintendo allegedly convinced retailers to pull Tengen's products from the shelves, lest they lose the most powerful name in video games.

13. Even Wal-Mart was afraid of Nintendo. When Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske met with the retail giant about selling a small number of Genesis consoles in their stores, Wal-Mart turned them down, fearing Nintendo's wrath.

14. In an attempt to convince Wal-Mart to carry the Genesis, Sega of America turned Bentonville, Arkansas, the retailer's home, into Segaville. They bought up all the billboard space that was available in the town and turned a strip mall location near Wal-Mart's headquarters into a free Sega arcade. (The plan worked. Eventually.)

15. Playstation was originally the Nintendo Playstation. Sony and Nintendo came to an agreement to release a CD add-on for the Super Nintendo, but Nintendo surprisingly ditched Sony (without telling them) and went to Phillips instead. Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi worried that Sony was getting too ambitious, and by agreeing to a partnership, the gaming company would be ceding too much control.

16. To drum up excitement for the debut of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega filmed an hour-long TV special featuring young TGIF actors and actresses duking it out in a series of extravagant athletic competitions at Universal Studios. It was called Sega Star Kid Challenge and it was hosted by Scott Baio. Naturally, it's on YouTube.

17. For three straight years, the number-one selling toy in America was a Nintendo product. This dominant run was eventually halted when another iconic toy, the Super Soaker, dethroned the game company and took the top spot in 1991.

18. Sega's identity as the badass, in-your-face Nintendo alternative came from a Reebok Pump commercial that SOA CEO Tom Kalinske saw late one night on TV. It was so influential, Kalinske hired the man behind it to join Sega.

19. Dustin Hoffman was so intrigued by the film version of Super Mario Bros. that he requested to play Mario. However, Nintendo of America president Minoru Arakawa was not a fan and didn't think he was right for the role.

20. Tom Hanks, fresh off Joe Versus the Volcano, agreed to play Mario for $5 million, but Nintendo and the producers backed out of the deal because they feared Hanks couldn't handle a dramatic role.

For more history on the glory days of video games, pick up a copy of Blake J. Harris' book Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation.

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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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