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Before Mad: The History of Educational Comics

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Mad Magazine, the subversive satire-laced magazine best known as the home of Alfred E. Neuman has, in its sixty years of existence, become an American institution. The magazine's original publisher, Educational Comics (EC), was founded by Max Gaines in 1945 and specialized in titles such as Picture Stories from the Bible. But EC eventually gained notoriety and critical acclaim for their line of well-drawn, socially conscious and often gruesome suspense, horror, and sci-fi titles. These comics played a central role in the comics scare of the 1950s, before being killed by the adoption of the Comics Code Authority.

New Trend

Following Max Gaines' death in 1947, EC was taken over by his son William M. Gaines, who took the company in an entirely new direction. In 1950, the younger Gaines began introducing ECs "New Trend" line, which went on to include titles such as the notorious horror comic Tales from the Crypt and in 1952, Mad Magazine.

EC was able to lure some of the best talent in the industry with high pay rates and an encouraging work environment. They began to release stories, many written by Gaines and editor Al Feldstein, challenging contemporary social mores. EC stories such as 1953's "In Gratitude," which appeared in Shock SuspenStories 11, tackled complicated issues that other forms of media didn't touch. The story involved a Korean War veteran returning home to find that his request for the body of his life-saving African American comrade to be buried in his family plot was denied due to racial discrimination. The soldier then condemned his hometown for their prejudice, reminding them that the man had died defending democracy. This story and others like it triggered debate that manifested itself in letters written by readers and published in subsequent issues.

Oh the Horror

Among other socially conscious titles at EC were war titles by Mad co-founder Harvey Kurtzman. These works included Two Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, which took an anti-war stance that stood out amongst the rest of the industry's glorification of combat.

But it was EC's horror titles that made up the largest percentage of their sales. The first titles of their "New Trend" line, such as Vault of Horror, spawned many imitators that often relied on gruesome covers and equally gruesome content. These soon caught attention of groups advocating against the comics industry.

The most well known of these advocates, Dr. Frederic Wertham, had become a prominent anti-comic book crusader in the late 1940s; he claimed there was a link between juvenile delinquency and comic books. Wertham's work culminated in his book Seduction of the Innocent, which heavily criticized horror comics as well as their more traditional competition. The book prompted th formation of a Senate sub-committee to delve into juvenile delinquency, with a heavy focus on the effect of comics on youth. Gaines voluntarily defended the works he published in front of a Senate panel. Asked to explain his concept of taste as well as the subtleties often evident in EC's works, Gaines was unable to convince the unreceptive sub-committee of their virtues. At one point he was forced to defend the use of racial slurs made by villainous characters in a story that was clearly anti-racist.

Comics Code

In the aftermath of this hearing and before the sub-committee could make their final report, a fearful comics industry formed the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) and through it established the Comics Code Authority. The authority, much like Hollywood's infamous Hays Office, reviewed and approved, with a special seal, books that fit within established guidelines for publishing. Their editorial guidelines included such mandates as, "Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals," and, "Policemen, judges, government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority."

Mad's Rise

EC at first refused to join the CMAA, and for a time struggled without the Code's backing. Mad, which had changed to a magazine format when Kurtzman almost moved to Pageant magazine (and subsequently was no longer subject to the code), continued to sell, and its success helped supplement the publication of poorly selling titles. In 1954, EC attempted to join the CMAA until a title featuring the sweat on the face of a black man, in an anti-segregation sci-fi story, was rejected by the Comics Code Authority. A frustrated Gaines gave up. EC canceled all of their crime and horror titles. And by 1956 all but Mad remained at the publisher.

Mad was originally founded by Harvey Kurtzman at EC to supplement his income when he couldn't match the pace of EC's more prolific editors. The magazine struggled at first until the release of the fourth issue containing the popular Superman parody, Superduperman. Kurtzman established the influential style and satirical format of the magazine, initially taking aim solely at the comics industry before taking on America at large. In 1956, after Kurtzman demanded a 50% ownership share, he was replaced by former EC editor Al Feldstein, editor of EC's own Mad imitator Panic. Mad, under Gaines' ownership, continued championing anti-establishment ideals, until he was forced to sell in 1961. He retained creative control until his death in 1992.

Royce Wilmot is a freshman at Seattle University. He's part of our College Weekend extravaganza.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]