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The Real Story Behind A Charlie Brown Christmas (and why it almost wasn't shown)

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04.jpgIn my mind, the Christmas season doesn't officially start until CBS shows A Charlie Brown Christmas. Who out there doesn't picture Snoopy dancing joyfully with his nose in the air whenever they hear the familiar strains of that jazzy piano music? Interestingly enough, this Christmas staple - the longest-running holiday special on TV - started out as an afterthought.

The Original Dog-umentary

Back in 1963, TV producer Lee Mendelson had the idea to make a documentary film about cartoonist Charles Schulz and his popular Peanuts comic strip. Schulz agreed, and collaborated with animator Bill Melendez to create two minutes of the first-ever animated Peanuts footage. The rest of the special featured "Sparky" Schulz in his studio, driving his kids to school, and even bowling a few frames. Songwriter Vince Guaraldi agreed to write some original music for the special, and the first composition he came up with was an incredibly catchy tune he called "Linus and Lucy."

031.jpgThe Peanuts documentary never sold, but one of the interested advertisers included Coca-Cola. Executives from the soft drink giant asked Mendelson if he'd be interested in putting together an animated Peanuts Christmas special. Within a few days, Mendelson and Schulz had the outline of a script ready, with notes like "sad Christmas tree," "school play," and "ice skating" scribbled in the margins. The "Lucy and Linus" song was resurrected for use in a scene that featured the characters dancing at their play rehearsal, and a choir of children were gathered from a Bay Area (California) church to record vocals for "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

Why Snoopy Gets all the Action Scenes

When it came to actually producing the special, Charlie Brown was truly a problem child. Unlike most of the other characters, Chuck's head was completely round, which made it difficult for the animators to turn and indicate movement from side to side. Snoopy, on the other hand, was the easiest character to manipulate, which is why they had fun making him do everything from the jitterbug to impersonating a vulture.

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The Blockheads at CBS Hate It (then change their minds)

When CBS executives previewed A Charlie Brown Christmas, they were vastly underwhelmed. There was just so much wrong with it. There was not enough action. It moved too slow. The voices had been done by real kids, not adult actors. There was no laugh track. And Linus read from the Gospel of Luke in one scene. ("You can't read from the Bible on network television!" they declared in unison.) At the end of the meeting, Mendelson was told: "Well, you gave it a good shot. Believe me, we're big Peanuts fans, but maybe it's better suited to the comic page."

011.jpgBut CBS had made a commitment to their sponsor, so they aired the special as scheduled on December 9, 1965. And, as often happens in the world of entertainment, the original gut reaction of the suits was completely wrong. A Charlie Brown Christmas drew in 15.4 million viewers, placing it second in the ratings that week after Bonanza. A few months later, Charles Schulz and Lee Mendelson found themselves onstage accepting an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Program. (See? Christmas really is the season for miracles.)

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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