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The Enduring Legacy of Li'l Abner

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Li'l Abner was a comic strip drawn by Al Capp that appeared in newspapers from 1934 to 1977. Those born after the strip ceased publication may look at samples and see only humor based on stereotypical hillbilly culture, but when you follow the adventures of the citizens of Dogpatch over the years, it was so much more than that. Capp had plenty to say about the events, trends, and politics of his time. He used a parade of unforgettable characters like Moonbeam McSwine, Fearless Fosdick, and Jubilation T. Cornpone to comment on world events, buried but visible under a thick Appalachian accent. The comic strip spawned books, plays, movies, and TV shows, as well as an avalanche of advertising and merchandising. Forty-three years of Li'l Abner left us with cultural touchstones even my children know, although they don't really know where they came from.

Kickapoo Joy Juice

In the Li'l Abner strip, Kickapoo Joy Juice was an alcoholic beverage distilled in a cave with an undisclosed location (for revenue reasons) near the Dogpatch area by characters Lonesome Polecat & Hairless Joe. I recall a vendor giving out samples of a new soft drink called Kickapoo Joy Juice in my small town when I was very young. We were asked to taste-test the drink and compare it with Mountain Dew. Introduced in 1965, Kickapoo Joy Juice is still manufactured in Atlanta. In the real world, the drink is non-alcoholic.

Sadie Hawkins Day

The name Sadie Hawkins is familiar to millions of people who have never read L'il Abner. The idea of women pursuing men as they did one day of the year in Dogpatch became a phenomenon in real life starting in 1938 on college campuses. The sheer contrariness of the concept made the Sadie Hawkins Day Dance a campus staple for decades. Today, as female high school and college students are more comfortable asking males for a date, the custom survives mainly at the middle school level.

Shmoo

The creature Capp named the shmoo was lovable, prolific, and delicious. The amorphous shape and unlikely characteristics of this animal captured the public's imagination. The rare evil version of the shmoo was called a nogoodnik. In the late 1940s and early '50s, any kind of merchandise called shmoo or anything in the shape of a shmoo was a guaranteed hit. The New Shmoo cartoon series entertained children on Saturday morning TV in 1979. That was shortly after Al Capp died, and two years after the strip ceased, the target audience was not familiar enough with the shmoo to carry the series more than a year.
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The word "shmoo" survives today in science. Actually, the term, like the fictional animal, proved to be so useful that five scientific fields use it for different concepts that are understood within their disciplines. Economics refers to a shmoo in the same way Capp did: a "free good" or useful material that self-reproduces without investment or labor. In biology, when a haploid yeast reproduces, the bulge that appears resembles a shmoo and the process is called shmooing. Some sea urchin larva are called shmoo. A piece of equipment used in particle physics is called shmoo because of its shape. The term is also used in electrical engineering and evolutionary science.

-nik

Words like beatnik and Sputnik entered our consciousness in the 1950s, and we learned that the suffix connoted a Slavic or Russian word. Words using the suffix have been around a long time, but the popularity of adding the -nik suffix to random English words to make something new is attributed to Al Capp's habit of coining words in Li'l Abner, such as nogoodnik and neatnik.

Dogpatch

The theme park Dogpatch, U.S.A. opened in 1968 in the Ozark Mountain area of Arkansas and closed in 1993. Investors paid Al Capp a continuing percentage to use his themes and characters, the value of which faded dramatically after Capp retired in 1977. The community surrounding the theme park had very few residents and took the name Dogpatch, Arkansas as park investors and employees moved in during the 1960s. The unincorporated area changed it name back to to Marble Falls in 1997. The name Dogpatch survives in numerous businesses that cater to tourists in the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains and elsewhere. It is also used as a synonym for a generic isolated mountain community, and was a slang term for US military quarters and hangouts in Vietnam.

We see vestiges of Dogpatch here and there, but probably the most important legacy of the strip is the use of political satire and social commentary in continuing comic strips that are mainly published for entertainment purposes. Al Capp has been cited as an influence in the later strips Pogo and Doonesbury and in the comics of MAD magazine, as well as other publications.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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