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C.H. PETE COPELAND/The Plain Dealer/Landov

College-Era Comics from Bill Watterson

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C.H. PETE COPELAND/The Plain Dealer/Landov

Note: This post originally appeared in October 2007.

Bill Watterson (pictured above in 1986) went to my college. Not with me, mind you; I graduated from Kenyon College, a cozy liberal arts enclave in Ohio, in 2001—Watterson, famous for creating the world's best comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes, preceded me by nearly twenty years. We've matriculated minor presidents (Rutherford B. Hayes), legendary poets (Robert Lowell), great scientists (Carl Djerassi, who developed the first oral contraceptive pill) and even some famous flossers (John Green). But perhaps no alumnus is as vaunted, especially by my generation, who grew up on Hobbes, as cartoonist Bill Watterson.

The oldest private college in Ohio, Kenyon isn't a place where change comes fast. So my college experience shared a lot of DNA with Watterson's: many of the same teachers and traditions from 1980 remained in 2000, and I instantly recognize our alma mater in the cartoons Watterson drew for the yearbook and the school newspaper, The Collegian, when he was a student. Lucky for Watterson fans everywhere, a contemporary of his scanned and posted some of these rare early works, which can be found here.

Allow me to contextualize a few of them.

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caples.jpgNine stories tall, Kenyon's Caples residence hall is the highest, and quite possibly the ugliest, building in rural Knox County, Ohio. It's an architectural anomaly in the Soviet-bloc style amidst a campus filled with graceful 19th-century buildings, and its warrens of tiny, freezing rooms are arranged around depressing, windowless common areas (known somewhat aspirationally as "suites"). February at Kenyon can indeed be depressing, especially if you've been sentenced by the Housing Office to spend it in Caples -- as the subject of this comic has. (By the way, fans of Hobbes will recognize this guy as an early version of Calvin's dad, who we can be fairly certain was meant to resemble Watterson himself.)

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Surrounded by miles of rolling cornfields and rural hamlets, coming to Kenyon could be a shock for students from big cities. ("What do people do?" "Where do you buy light bulbs and socks?" "Will hillbillies kill us?") They either transferred before the first semester was over, or became, as my friends and I did, converts to the countryside. As charming as our campus was, the lure of an idyllic bike ride down to the Kokosing river was a siren song that often overwhelmed the responsibilities of classwork -- especially on perfect Spring days like the one pictured above.

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I feel this one; ten months after graduation, I was working as a mortgage loan processor in a positively Orwellian corporate center in Beaverton, Oregon. Not exactly what I had in mind for my future as I was writing my English literature thesis (Faith and the Postmodern Awakening, if you must know). Kenyon tries to be sensitive to the plight of their many liberal arts grads (English is by far the most popular major), offering seminars with titles like "What can you do with an art history major?" (The answer? Teach art history!)

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The joke's not a gut-buster, but anyone who's been to Kenyon can name the landmark the ashamed student is about to pass though: the "Gates of Hell." A set of stone pillars which bisect the campus between its north and south halves, the Gates have a freaky lore and legacy all their own. From this month's Alumni Bulletin:

It is said that writer Anthony Burgess, who spoke on campus during the late seventies, later appeared on the Phil Donahue Show and told a national audience that Kenyon College was home to the Gates of Hell and the most intense evil energy that he had ever experienced. Hearing about this, the College requested a videotape of the show, but when it arrived there was no mention of evil at Kenyon, or of any hellish gates. Some cite this "excision" as eerily suggestive in itself. Others scoff, raising the obvious question of whether Burgess ever said any such thing at all. There are other tales. According to one, it was a psychic who identified Gambier as home to the Gates of Hell. Another insists that the evil portal is actually the old gated entrance to the Bishop's House, in the densely wooded lower reaches of Brooklyn Street. Whatever the case, superstitions have grown up around the gates. Some say that you shouldn't walk between the gates when the bells in the Church of the Holy Spirit are chiming midnight, or you might be transported to Hell itself.

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Now go read our interview with Watterson, which appears in the December 2013 issue of mental_floss magazine!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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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