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The Quick 10: Happy Birthday, Garfield!

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Today is Garfield's 31st birthday! He may not be your favorite comic strip "“ or mine "“ but you have to give the guy props for lasting a lot longer than most cats. And with what his cholesterol level must be, that's no easy feat! To honor the ill-tempered tabby, here are a few facts about how he came to be.

garfield1. Garfield is named after President James A. Garfield, in a roundabout way. He gets his name from Jim Davis' grandpa, James Garfield Davis, who in turn was named for the president. Davis says he took some of Garfield's characteristics from his grandpa as well - namely his curmudgeonly attitude.


2. Why a cat? Because Jim Davis grew up loving the comic strips with dogs in them - Marmaduke, Snoopy and Belvedere - but noticed that there weren't really any strips with cats in them. He had grown up on a farm with at least 25 cats and knew that they had very dry personalities that would be perfectly suited to a comic strip. Garfield was supposed to be the sidekick to a cartoonist named Jon Arbuckle, but Garfield quickly stole the show... and Davis let him. Davis himself owns two dogs and one cat. The cat isn't Garfield (it's Spunky), but you might be pleased to know that one of the dogs is named Pooky.

3. Garfield comes by his love for lasagna honestly: he was born in an Italian restaurant named Mama Leoni's. He weighed five pounds, six ounces. The owner of the restaurant wanted to keep Garfield, but the orange tabby was eating so much that there was no food to serve to the customers. Garfield was sold to a pet store, which is where Jon Arbuckle came in.

4. Contrary to popular belief, Garfield doesn't eat everything. He's been shown to hate grapefruit, raisins, snails, fruitcake and most vegetables.

davis5. Garfield, Jon and Odie live in Muncie, Indiana. This was a mystery for many years, but a big piece to the puzzle was unraveled after a Garfield T.V. special showed Jon driving a car with Indiana license plates. In the 1987 special Garfield Goes Hollywood, the gang went on a Star Search-like show, where the announcer told the crowd they were from Muncie, Indiana. Of course, none of this should come as a surprise - Jim Davis grew up in Indiana and still lives there. Muncie is the headquarters of Paws, Inc., Davis' company that was formed to handle the licensing of Garfield and ownership of the strip.


6. Odie started out life as a character in a television commercial, or at least his name did - the commercial featured a guy named "Odie the Village Idiot." When Davis created the Garfield strip, Garfield's target of abuse was named Spot. Davis asked veteran cartoonist Mort Walker to take a look at his rough strips, and Mort mentioned that he already had a dog named Spot in his own syndicated series. Not wanting to duplicate Walker's name, Davis decided to bring back his old village idiot pal.

7. Garfield isn't the only character named after one of Davis' relatives - Jon's backwoods brother, Doc Boy, is named after Jim's brother, Dave "Doc" Davis. "Doc isn't nearly as goofy as his cartoon namesake," Jim Davis has said. "He's goofier."

8. Those of you who have been reading the strip since the beginning might remember a character named Lyman. He was Jon's roommate and Odie's former owner. He randomly disappeared from the strip with no explanation given, although Davis later explained that his original purpose was to give Jon someone to express thoughts to. As Garfield became more and more human, Lyman was no longer needed. Davis was once asked what had happened to Lyman, he mischievously replied, "Don't look in Jon's closet."

gnorm9. Before Garfield, there was Gnorm. Gnorm Gnat was Davis' first strip, published only in the Pendleton, Indiana, newspaper. He liked writing it and thought bugs were funny, but the syndicate he tried to sell the strip to differed, saying, "Your art is good, your gags are great, but bugs- nobody can relate to bugs!" There was also a bug with buck teeth and hat whose name was Lyman - sound familiar? Davis ended the strip by having a giant foot come out of the sky and squish poor Gnorm.


10. Jon Arbuckle shares the same birthday (minus the year) as his creator. That's July 28, if you're keeping track. Jon was born in 1950 and Davis was born in 1945. Jon looks pretty good for being nearly 60, don't you think?

And of course, there's Garfield Minus Garfield, which we have featured on the _floss before, and other crazy Garfield variants, both by Mr. Chris Higgins. So, are you a Garfield fan or not? I can't say that it really makes me laugh out loud, but I read the strip every day anyway. I wish U.S. Acres was still around.

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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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