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Courtesy of Tim Finn // A Real American Book

How Rocky Balboa Nearly Became a Member of G.I. Joe

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Courtesy of Tim Finn // A Real American Book

Opening on May 22, 1985, Rambo: First Blood Part II was a fantasy fever dream of jingoism, Sylvester Stallone’s titular character a monosyllabic redeemer of an America that had failed itself in Vietnam. A onetime Green Beret, Rambo needs little more than 90 minutes to rescue abandoned POWs and somehow salvage his country’s intervention in foreign affairs.

The movie made more than $300 million worldwide. Coleco, which had experienced a phenomenon with the Cabbage Patch Kids, snapped up the rights to produce a toy line. Neutered for young audiences, this Rambo practiced greater discretion, bloodlessly assaulting enemies in a Saturday morning cartoon.

Coleco hoped Rambo: The Force of Freedom would compete with Hasbro’s G.I. Joe for a share of the military-oriented action figure market. Hasbro, which wasn’t about to touch an R-rated film, decided to combat their potential toy aisle rival by enlisting Stallone’s other trademark character: slow-witted boxer Rocky Balboa.

It wasn’t the first time the company pursued a license for a figure that had been established outside of G.I. Joe continuity. Hasbro had released Sergeant Slaughter as a premium mail-away attraction in 1985, co-opting the popular professional wrestler’s recognition among WWE (then WWF) fans.

Slaughter was a success in toy, cartoon, and comic book form, helping reinvigorate a G.I. Joe line that had been on shelves since 1982—an eternity in action figure years. Hasbro hoped Balboa would do the same, aiming to release a mail-away premium figure in 1987 that would be available to customers who sent in proofs of purchase from other G.I. Joe merchandise.

Establishing Rocky’s place in the mythology of the G.I. Joe universe fell on Larry Hama, writer of Marvel’s G.I. Joe comic and a frequent source for hammering out narrative points across the franchise’s many outlets. In a Marvel collection of character biographies titled G.I. Joe: Order of Battle #2, released in late 1986, Hama scripted a brief rundown (above) that presented Balboa as a combat trainer, filling obligations for his "Reserve time" by turning their hands into semi-deadly weapons.

Over at Hasbro, sculptor Bill Merklein was tasked with creating a wax prototype of the character’s action figure:

An in-house Hasbro artist created a mock-up of the card art, which featured the boxer wielding a stick with two boxing gloves attached to either end; another Hasbro designer, Mark Pennington, created the control art, which would have been used to further detail the figure. Curiously, Pennington appeared to take more design cues—headband, long hair—from Stallone’s Rambo iconography than he did Rocky's:

For kids not yet weaned on crossover movies, this was an exciting prospect: anyone picking up Order of Battle #2 probably imagined a scenario in which Ivan Drago would somehow be dragged into Joe nemesis COBRA’s operations.

But it was not to be. In the very next issue of Order of Battle, Marvel printed what must have been one of the few retractions over the appearance of a fictional character, explaining that Balboa’s debut in the previous comic had been a mistake. It was written with the sober language of someone who had just been yelled at by a lawyer.

How did this awkward partnership between fictional boxer and fictional military force dissolve? According to former Hasbro product manager Kirk Bozigian, Stallone’s representatives knocked him out of contention. “The reason Rocky was dropped from the G.I. Joe line is because his agents got greedy,” Bozigian tells mental_floss. “While we were designing and sculpting Rocky Balboa, a competing toy company, Coleco, was introducing Rambo action figures and vehicles to compete with us. The decision to drop Rocky was an easy one.”

Although they had recruited the more famous star, Coleco wound up enduring protests by antiwar groups angry that the Rambo toy line appeared to be glorifying combat. The accompanying cartoon lasted just a few months.

Stallone’s likeness has never appeared in any subsequent Joe revival, but Hasbro did wind up releasing a villain in 1987 dubbed Big Boa. Considering his boxing gloves and punching bag accessory, it’s very likely he was originally intended to be a personal nemesis for Rocky. Thanks to some legal red tape, he never got to take his swing.

All images courtesy of Tim Finn, author of the upcoming G.I. Joe history A Real American Book.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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