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6 Great Christmas Comic Book Adventures

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You can't forget the great Christmas songs, movies and television specials. But what of the wonderful, heart-warming Christmases you spent with Archie, Richie Rich, Mickey Mouse and Little Lulu? Even super-heroes sometimes take a break from clobbering super-villains at Christmas. Here are some of the classic holiday stories that have made their way into the comics over the years.

1. Superman's Christmas Adventure (1940)

Superman had only been published for two years when he met Santa, but he was already America's top-selling comic book hero, with his own very popular radio serial. In this classic story (co-written by his creator, Jerry Siegel), the Man of Steel foils the plans of Dr. Grouch and Mr. Meaney (hoo boy), who plan to wreck Santa's workshop and steal his reindeer, thereby ruining Christmas for everyone. To show that it was more than just a superhero story, it also has a subplot in which he teaches the true meaning of Christmas to a spoiled kid by introducing him to some poor kids who have no toys. Happily, his new friend Santa comes to the rescue with"¦ Superman toys, shirts, Krypto-rayguns and other merchandise. "Superman novelties are very popular this year," remarks Santa.

2. Christmas on Bear Mountain (1947)

donald-duckThis celebrated Christmas adventure—for Donald Duck and his nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie—appeared courtesy of the legendary artist Carl Barks. As it was Christmas, it introduced Scrooge to the comics. Not the miserable old man of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, but another miser—Uncle Scrooge McDuck.

It all begins with Donald too broke to celebrate Christmas, but then his rich uncle invites the gang to his chalet on Bear Mountain—not out of goodwill, it turns out, but to test their courage. Through misinterpretation, Uncle Scrooge believes they are all fearless, and has Christmas dinner with them in his mansion. Scrooge was popular enough to become a recurring character in the Donald Duck comics, and in 1952 he became the hero of his own comic book. Unlike Santa (who had his own comic, Santa Claus Funnies), he wasn't limited to Christmas stories.

3. Have Yourself a Sandman Little Christmas (1972)

marvel-teamupDecades before Hollywood special effects were good enough to put him in the movies, the Sandman was the causing trouble in Marvel Team-Up. In the very first issue of that comic, set on Christmas Eve, he ties up his old foes Spider-Man and the Human Torch inside a water tower, then cackles "Merry Christmas" and runs away. Of course, our heroes escape and track him down, only to find him is visiting his bedridden mother. He says that he will come along peacefully, but he needs to see her first. He explains that the doctors never told her that he is a criminal, and asks that they not spoil her Christmas with this revelation. Spider-Man is so touched that he hands her a gift-wrapped package, which was meant for his girlfriend. The heroes go out to wait for him"¦ and naturally, he escapes. But that's OK, because it's Christmas, so they're happy to let him get away. (Besides, they get to kick his butt in the very next issue.)

4. A Swinging Christmas Carol (1968)

teen-titansBack in the sixties, the Ten Titans was a group comprised of the young sidekicks of DC Comics superheroes, with hipper-than-hip dialogue"¦ and some pretty weird stories. In this one, vicious Ebenezer Scrounge's business partner Jacob Farley escapes from prison to get his revenge, while Scrounge's employee Bob Ratchet struggles to care for his disabled son Tiny Tom. The Titans—Robin, Wonder Girl, Aqualad and Kid Flash (who later took over as the "real" Flash)—agree to teach Scrounge a lesson.

Somewhere in the story, it occurs to these well-read youngsters that the plot has a few things in common with A Christmas Carol. Perhaps this is why decide to play the Spirits of Christmas. This being a superhero comic, Scrounge is actually being manipulated by a mobster, but the Titans stop him in time for Christmas festivities. "Hey Robin-O, how could anyone have as marv a Christmas as we are?" asks Aqualad. As I wasn't a hipster in 1968 (or any other year, come to think of it), I'm not sure what he meant by that.

5. The Feather Merchant (1959)

Archie Andrews just can't get it right. In all his years as a teenager, he had countless Christmas stories, but so many of them were the same: he buys a gift for someone (usually his favorite girlfriend, Veronica), only to be repeatedly persuaded by different people that he's made the wrong choice. He trades his gift for something else, again and again, until eventually he is either clobbered by the shop assistant or forced to buy a completely awful gift. In this version of that sorry tale, he tries to get on the good side of Veronica's wealthy father by buying him a rare bird for his collection. After many wrong birds, and a particularly aggravated pet shop owner, he eventually gives him a vulture—something he really doesn't want.

6. Wanted: Santa Claus"¦ Dead or Alive! (1980)

Even Batman could occasionally get into the Christmas spirit. In this story, a reformed criminal named Boomer Katz gets a job playing Santa in a department store. Sadly, Boomer's past catches up with him, as he is forced by his pals "Fats" Morgan and Louis to rob the store (and let's face it, if your friends have names like that, you're hanging out with the wrong crowd). Batman arrives too late to catch them, but he is led to their hideout by a mysterious star on the horizon. Of course, being Christmas, Boomer helps to save the day. But for all its festive spirit, this story is historically important for another reason: it was the first Batman story to be co-written and drawn by Frank Miller (then 23), who later reinvented the character with his graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns.

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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]