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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
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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