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Donald Duck on the Futility of Nuclear War

In 1952, Disney released the 7-minute cartoon "Applecore" featuring Donald Duck and Chip 'n Dale, the mischievous fast-talking chipmunks. In this short, Donald plays an apple farmer whose crops are being eaten by Chip 'n Dale, so Donald retaliates, only to be foiled at every turn.

This short is cute, but there is a hugely powerful Cold War undertone here. In the wake of World War II, this short is about the futility of nuclear war, showing the escalation of an arms race, the loss of Donald's crops, and ultimately the nuclear destruction of portions of Donald's farm. At one point, Donald is seen selecting from an arsenal of "Atom Dust," lye, acid, TNT, "Essence of TNT," arsenic, poison, cyanide, and "Atomic Pills" which are basically tiny warheads. There's even an mildly xenophobic parody of "digging a hole to China" near the end.

Seeing this cartoon as a product of its Cold War era makes it bizarre -- it actually is a cute, funny cartoon for kids, but it's also an object lesson about war. Check it out:

Read some trivia about the short after the jump!

Blogger "Duckman" explains that the "Applecore/Baltimore" thing started in the Melody Time short from 1948. Other sources claim that "Apple Core" was a game popular with kids in the mid-20th century. It's unclear whether it became popular because of the Disney shorts, or the Disney shorts incorporated an existing game. But check out this snippet from a discussion of the subject, written by forum moderator "koolcat" and claiming its source as Wikipedia (though I couldn't find it on Wikipedia myself):

"Apple core" is a children's game and prank that was popular among schoolchildren in the United States in the middle of the 20th century.

The game proceeds as follows: a child finishes eating an apple, then displays the core for the other children to see. The child then says "Apple core!"

One of the other children replies: "Nevermore," "Say No More" or "Baltimore."

The first child then responds: "Who's your friend?"

And the second child responds with the name of another child in the group.

The first child then responds: "hard or soft?"

And the second child responds with the choice of either "hard" or "soft".

The first child again responds: "now or never?"

And the second child responds with his choice of either "now" or "never".

Upon hearing the name of the "friend", "hard or soft", and "now or never", the first child then throws (assuming one of the answers were "now") the apple core (either hard or soft) at the named child as he yells, "Not no more"

The origin of the game, like many schoolyard games, is obscure.

Also interesting is the history of Chip 'n Dale, who I know primarily from the late 80's TV series Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers. Anyway, according to Wikipedia, both chipmunks originally had identical noses, making them hard to tell apart. Later, Chip was given a black nose to distinguish him. You know, to be honest, I never noticed this stuff as a kid. I also wasn't entirely clear on what a chipmunk was, and how it differed from a squirrel -- but that's a topic for another blog entry. Here's more from Wikipedia:

According to Disney, Chip is the logical schemer, and Dale is the goofy, dim-witted one. An easy way to visually tell them apart is that Chip has a small black nose (it looks a bit like a chocolate "Chip" as a way to help people remember who is who) and two centered protruding teeth, whereas Dale has a big red nose and his two prominent buck teeth exposed. Chip is also depicted as having smooth, short fur atop his head while Dale's tends to be ruffled.

You learn something new (about cartoons) every day, right?

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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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