Jawesome: The Story of Street Sharks

Joe Galliani hadn’t finished his presentation to Mattel executives when one of them suddenly held his hand up.

“We want it,” said the man from boys’ toys. “We’ll take it.”

Galliani noticed the executive had been doodling anthropomorphic sharks on the paper in front of him. “Best meeting I ever had,” he tells mental_floss.

Interrupted in 1994, Galliani—who had started out by arranging displays for Mattel during line preview meetings with toy buyers and slowly worked his way through the ranks—was pitching Street Sharks, an action figure line consisting of humanoid man-fish with various action moves: knockout punches, projectile eyeballs, and masticating jaws. For the 1994 Toy Fair, the company hired a then-unknown Vin Diesel to extol the virtues of characters like Ripster, Big Slammu, and Moby Lick.

Galliani recalls that Diesel was recruited from the New York casting scene and that his sleeveless leather vest actually had a fin running along his back. (You can’t see it in the video, unfortunately.) The actor toiled for two weeks, making upwards of 20 presentations a shift, and was paid $250 a day. “He got it,” Galliani says of his enthusiasm. “Nobody had to tell him.”

Diesel’s affection for punching out plastic sharks was shared by Mattel’s demographic: The line grossed $40 million in its first full year out in 1995, besting the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers phenomenon in some markets. Galliani credits the success with children's fascination with sharks. When licensee David Siegel asked him to come up with a man-eating property they could sell to Mattel, Galliani noticed that every shark book in the local library had a waiting list.

“Boys,” he says, “love sharks.”

After dissuading Siegel from using a single shark toy mold painted different colors and expanding the line to include hammerheads and other ocean terrors, the two proceeded to sell Mattel, the licensing agent for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and animation company Bohbot Entertainment on a story about a scientist who is mutated along with his sons into bipedal sharks via a “gene-slammer” and must fight the evil Dr. Piranoid. The toys were packaged in something resembling a diving cage, complete with teeth marks. Some wore rollerblades.

Mellow Toy Reviews via YouTube

The Street Sharks cartoon ran for 40 episodes in syndication through 1997—Galliani was recruited to polish scripts with catchphrases like “Jawesome” and “Fintastic”—at which point interest in the line cooled. Galliani took his share of the royalties and pursued a new pro bono career in environmental activism, heading up the South Bay Los Angeles chapter of and spreading awareness about climate change. He was as surprised as anyone when video of Diesel’s Toy Fair gig popped up this week.

“There was never any media allowed,” he says of the elaborate displays Mattel would set up in New York. “This could all be a very skillful viral campaign on Mattel’s part to announce a CGI Street Sharks movie with Vin Diesel.”

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]