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Happy Belated Birthday, Betty Boop!

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Betty Boop celebrated her 80th birthday this month, as her first appearance on film occurred on August 9, 1930. A relic of the jazz era, she was an icon of hope for Americans suffering through the Great Depression as her flapper persona reminded them of good times from the past.

A Real Dog

Betty's first appearance was in the cartoon Dizzy Dishes, where she was designed to be an object of lust for Bimbo, a dog character who was currently the lead in many of Max Fleischer's Talkartoons. Because she was created for Bimbo, she was originally an anthropomorphic poodle character, but she still had her Betty charms.


The character was based on the looks of singer Helen Kane (pictured), best known for her song "I Wanna Be Loved By You," and actress Clara Bow, who was the inspiration for Betty's Brooklyn accent. As Betty proved to be more and more popular, she evolved into a full human by 1932, her floppy ears turned into hoop earrings and her poodle nose was morphed into a cute button nose.

What's in a Name?

In Betty's first cartoon appearances, the supporting character didn't have a real name and was called "Nancy Lee" or "Nan McGrew" in a few episodes. Many people believe that Betty got her name in the 1931 cartoon Betty Co-ed, but the Betty this one was named after was a different character in the film. Creators say that her appearance in the movie did help inspire her name later on though.

Becoming A Star

By 1932, Betty was the lead star of the Talkarttoons. She was given her own series that same year and dubbed "The Queen of the Animated Screen." Her cartoon series was so popular that many other characters got their start in her series, including Popeye.

Adult Animation

Betty was one of the first sex symbols of animation and she remains one of the most famous. Unlike most cartoons we see today, her episodes were made to appeal to adult audiences. For this reason, there was a lot more sexuality in the cartoons themselves, she not only has cleavage, but in the episode above and in Bamboo Isle,  she didn't even have a top on. Characters would often try to take a peep at her and in many episodes, she would have to fight off a man who was trying to get fresh with her.

Despite all this, she still maintained a girlish innocence. In her appearance with Cab Calloway in Minnie the Moocher, for example, she's just a scared little girl who has run away from home. This was reflected in her design, where her large head is more reminiscent of a baby than of a human adult. This childish sexuality was a perfect balance for the flapper image Betty represented. This also suited her character's age—according to a 1932 interview with Max Fleischer, Betty was only supposed to be only 16 years old.

While on screen, she maintained her virtue, but behind the scenes, the company allowed her to be a little more naughty, sending a Christmas card out in 1931 that portrayed her in bed with Santa Claus, winking at the viewer.

A Feminist Icon

One of the reasons that Betty is so adored even to this day is the fact that many people see her as a feminist icon, oozing with sexuality, but preserving her virtue against dominating men. In fact, there are a few episodes that portray her fighting off intimidating men, even some where she is facing sexual harassment, a highly taboo subject at the time. In Boop-Oop-A-Doop, for example, Betty is a tightrope performer whose boss has followed her back into her tent and then threatens her job if she doesn't submit to his advances. Betty begs him to stop and is saved just in time by Koko the Clown.

But it seems unlikely that the creators actually intended to create her as an icon for women's advancement. In Betty Boop's Big Boss, Betty is harassed by her boss and fights of his advances when outraged police and the armed forces all attack the building in order to protect her. When her purported saviors rescue her, though, they find Betty willingly embracing the boss instead.

Betty In Color

If you always thought Betty had black hair, you're wrong. In her first and only official color cartoon, Poor Cinderella, she was actually portrayed as a redhead. In later years, when the cartoon was being syndicated for television, producers thought it might be a good idea to colorize the character, so they sent it to Korea for colorization, only to have it returned looking sloppy and cheap. No one bought the colorized cartoons and they were largely ignored as part of the library.

Of course, when merchandisers took advantage of her iconic style in the 80s, they colorized her according to the black and white cartoons, which is why she is now often seen with black hair and a red dress.

Controversies In the Real World

Fleischer Studios and Paramount Pictures were sued in 1932 by one of Betty's inspirations, Helen Kane. She claimed that their "deliberate caricature" of her exploited her personality and image and made it impossible for her to find work. After a two-year court battle, Kane lost, with the court determining that Betty also bore a resemblance to Clara Bow and that Kane's singing style was not entirely unique.

Just after the lawsuit ended, the studio was targeted by the National Legion of Decency and the Production Code of 1934. They were forced to reduce Betty's sexuality and she was forced to become a housewife/career girl with a new, prudish wardrobe. Just about everything Betty did was considered "suggestive of immorality" by Joseph Breen, the head film censor of the time, and even her winking and hip shaking were considered to be too suggestive.

The studio figured her new image would no longer appeal to her existing audience, so they started to aim the cartoons at a more juvenile crowd, which made the series decline even faster. Near the end of the series, they tried to make her more relevant to modern audiences by having her adapt to the swing era, but this didn't work either. Throughout her decline, the studio started pairing her with new co-stars and reducing her role in the show. In fact, the last Betty Boop series cartoon doesn't even have Betty in it.

Reviving The Bombshell

It seems that every time Betty's popularity fizzles out, she disappears for a moment only to come back a few years later with an entirely new audience. After her first disappearance from the limelight, she started becoming popular again when she was syndicated in 1955. As color television became the new trend and there seemed to be no place for black and white cartoons, she was adopted by the late 60s, early 70s counterculture movement. In the 80s, marketers realized they could make a fortune by selling all kinds of merchandise bearing her logo, to the point where many people these days don't even know she's actually a cartoon character. Personally, I didn't really like her until I started watching the old cartoons.

The 80s was perhaps her biggest revival period, as she also appeared in two TV specials during this time and was part of a comic strip that also featured Felix The Cat. She also made a cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. At the same time, VHS and Beta collections of her cartoons were made public and a new generation of fans jumped on the bandwagon once more.

These days, Betty lives on through characters she inspired, such as Boopsie in Doonesbury and Toot in Drawn Together. There are even plans to release a Broadway show based on the character soon.

Image courtesy of grapitix's Flickr stream.

Are you a Betty Boop fan? If so, when did you first get into the character?

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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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