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14 Things You Might Not Know About Carmen Sandiego

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In the 1990s, the rising affordability of home computers brought about the “edutainment” trend, where companies tried to use computer games to teach kids—and to convince their parents—that technology wasn’t evil. One of the most successful of those attempts was Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, a game where the player was a detective for the ACME Agency, chasing a rogue agent-turned-red-fedora-wearing criminal named Carmen Sandiego. Carmen and her henchmen from V.I.L.E. (Villains’ International League of Evil) hopped around the world, trying to steal landmarks like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

As kids followed Carmen and V.I.L.E. with clues like “she’s learning Portuguese” (head to Brazil!) or “she changed her money to rubles” (next stop: Russia!), they also learned about geography and history. The games resulted in several spinoffs, including Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego? and a PBS kids’ TV game show where real-life middle schoolers won prizes for successfully answering questions about geography. But here’s what you may not know about Carmen and all her incarnations.

1. THE SHOW WAS INSPIRED BY A STUDY SHOWING HOW LITTLE MOST AMERICANS KNEW ABOUT GEOGRAPHY.

Following the success of the Carmen Sandiego computer game, two PBS affiliates decided to make a trivia show based on the game. Part of their decision came from a recent National Geographic study showing that one in four Americans couldn’t locate the Pacific Ocean on a map.

2. CONTESTANTS WERE RECRUITED FROM NEW YORK AREA MIDDLE SCHOOLS.

Mark Trinidad appeared on an episode of Carmen Sandiego in 1992, when he was 12 years old. The show worked with a teacher at his middle school in Teaneck, New Jersey, who selected a group of the school’s top geography students. Those kids were quizzed and interviewed by producers, and then some—like Mark—were picked to be on the show, which taped on a lot in Queens, New York.

3. WINNERS RECEIVED GLOBALLY-INSPIRED PRIZES.

Although Mark won his episode of Carmen Sandiego and made it to the final round, he didn't win the grand prize: a trip. He did go home with some other swag though, including a basketball designed to look like a globe, a portable CD player, and some world music CDs. He also got to keep his contestant nametag.

4. THERE WAS ONCE A CARMEN SANDIEGO GAME SPECIFICALLY ABOUT THE STATE OF NORTH DAKOTA.

There have been multiple Carmen Sandiego games, including Where in Time… and Where in Space…, as well as editions focusing specifically on Europe and the United States. But the state of North Dakota got special permission to make a Carmen Sandiego game in honor of its 100th anniversary in 1989.

5. THE CHIEF HAS A TONY AWARD.

Actress Lynne Thigpen, who passed away in 2003, was beloved by middle-schoolers, thanks to her role as The Chief in both the Carmen Sandiego games and TV series. But her acting career had numerous other highlights, particularly on Broadway, where she won a Tony Award for An American Daughter. She was also an ensemble member in the film version of Godspell.

6. CARMEN IS AN EGOT.

In the animated TV series, Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?, Carmen became a more fully fleshed-out character. We learned that she grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area (no, not San Diego) and that her middle name is Isabella. During the series, she was voiced by Rita Moreno, an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) winner, whose Oscar came from playing Anita in West Side Story. Moreno was nominated for three Daytime Emmys for her voice work as Carmen, but she didn’t win.

7. THERE IS A MISSING EPISODE.

One episode of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, “Auld Lang Gone,” never aired because the winning contestant (a.k.a. “gumshoe”) fell during the bonus round and broke her arm.

8. CARMEN HAS A CAT NAMED CARMINE.

Carmen’s cat, Carmine, is not just a companion—the ginger kitty is a villain in her own right. Her main antagonist is Stretch, the droopy-eared, crime-fighting dog owned by ACME.

9. CARMEN HAS A CONNECTION TO JIMINY CRICKET AND SLEEPING BEAUTY.

Raymond Portwood, Jr. was the principal inventor of the Carmen Sandiego concept and original computer game when he worked for California-based Broderbund Software. Before joining Broderbund, he was an animator for Disney and worked on Sleeping Beauty, Lady and the Tramp, and Peter Pan. He also assisted on drawings of Jiminy Cricket.

10. CARMEN MAY HAVE CROSSED PATHS WITH SOME OF J.D. SALINGER’S CHARACTERS.

When Carmen was a kid, she won lots of money on a quiz show called It’s a Wise Child. The winnings enabled her to develop her taste for globetrotting. The name of the show is a reference to the one the Glass children participated in in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.

11. ROCKAPELLA KEPT ROCKING AFTER THEIR TV GIG ENDED.

Rockapella was the “rock acapella” group that served as the in-house jam band on Carmen Sandiego. Originally formed by four friends from Brown University, the lineup changed over the years. The current incarnation doesn’t feature any of the original four members, but the original Rockapellans still make music—one, Sean Altman, now performs Jewish-themed songs under the name Jewmongous.

12. A CARMEN SANDIEGO MOVIE MAY HAPPEN.

In 2011, Walden Media bought the movie rights to Carmen Sandiego, with Jennifer Lopez attached to the project as a producer. Back in the ’90s, Disney bought the rights and planned to make a live-action film starring Sandra Bullock, but the project fell apart. Walden says their vision for the Carmen Sandiego movie is “National Treasure meets The Thomas Crown Affair.” Lopez reportedly isn’t planning to star in the movie, so casting is still wide open.

13. IN 2016, CARMEN SANDIEGO'S IDENTITY WAS REVEALED.

Although the question of "Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?" has been answered plenty of times (in video game and TV show form), the question of who is Carmen Sandiego had always been more difficult to respond to—until last year.

While some famous actresses’ names (Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Lopez, for example) have been bandied about to play Carmen in the aforementioned movie adaptation, one person has actually portrayed the character—an unidentified woman who starred as a shadowy, face-hidden version of the supervillain in the history-centric late '90s show Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? The Huffington Post reporter Todd Van Luling was finally able to track down Janine LaManna, the woman who played Carmen, and nabbed her first-ever interview about the role.

14. A NEW ANIMATED SERIES IS IN THE WORKS.

On April 18, 2017, Variety reported that Netflix had nabbed the rights to Carmen Sandiego with the intention of producing a new animated series, with Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez attached to voice the titular character. "The series will be based on the iconic educational computer game franchise that followed Sandiego as she traveled across the world stealing national treasures," wrote Joe Otterson for Variety. "It will offer an intimate look into the character’s past where viewers will not only follow her escapades but also learn who in the world is Carmen Sandiego and why she became a super thief. The series is produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for Netflix and will premiere in 2019."

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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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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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