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Box Brown

5 Fun Facts About Tetris

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Box Brown

If you’ve ever played Tetris, especially when it first came out in the 1980s, you probably remember it as being something that at least temporarily took over your life. The best video games can do that, but something about the simple nature of Tetris made it addictive like no other. Now, in a new graphic novel, Box Brown (whose last graphic novel was a biography of Andre the Giant) tells the story of how Tetris made its way from the mind of a software engineer in the Soviet Union to becoming one of the most popular video games of all time.

Tetris: The Games People Play comes out October 11, but in the meantime, Brown shared with mental_floss things you may not have known about Tetris, illustrated with scenes from his book.


BOX BROWN: "This is where Alexey Pajitnov was working when he created Tetris. He was employed by the government at the time. One of the things I found so compelling about Alexey was that he had no profit motive to create Tetris.  It's pure inspiration and execution. Maybe he just did it because it could be done and it should be done. It's something that can't really be said about a lot of pieces of art."


BOX BROWN: "A version of this game was marketed in the states as 'Cathedral' in 1985. I remember playing it at my cousin's house when I was a kid. It was pretty competitive. The game was designed to look like you were building a little castle but it was really just a Tetris-like puzzle game."


BOX BROWN: "The absolute first version of Tetris was made on a computer with no graphics capabilities. So, Alexey created his vision with text. Two brackets [] made up a block. His first conception of Tetris were these puzzle pieces falling from the sky and landing in a glass. The player had to rearrange them as they fell."


BOX BROWN: "Most players thought the name Tetris was weird when they first heard it. I guess it's kind of weird looking back on it. The way the game was marketed in the U.S., it must have sounded like a very stern Russian word to American audiences. It's so ubiquitous, it's the perfect name. I wonder if people thought Xerox was a weird word at first?"


BOX BROWN: "This scene was fun for me because I remember shareware. Before the internet you would save a game on a floppy disc and give it to a friend. It amazed me that the game still went 'viral' even though you had to physically meet the person, not to mention spend forever copying the game on the old machines. I have distinct memories of getting Wolfenstein via this method ..."

Tetris: The Games People Play will be released October 11.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]