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The Yellow Kid on the Paper Stage

How the Yellow Kid Fueled the Pulitzer/Hearst Rivalry

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The Yellow Kid on the Paper Stage

You know the Yellow Kid: that baby-faced, buck-toothed street urchin who graced comic strips in the latter half of the 1890s. He was created by Richard Outcault, who later went on to create the equally successful Buster Brown and his little terrier Tige.

The Kid, whose full name was Mickey Dugan, first appeared in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World in 1895, one of a cast of characters in a strip called Hogan’s Alley. He soon became better known as the “Yellow Dugan Kid” for the omnipresent over-sized yellow nightshirt which bore his dialogue: quippy observations in a broad New York dialect.

As the Kid’s popularity rapidly grew, the strip’s presence actually increased paper sales for the World. And the capitalization didn’t stop there. Soon there was a Yellow Kid version of everything, from playing cards, pins, dolls, and ice cream, to bottle openers, sheet music, even cigarettes. Historians cite the Yellow Kid as the first example of modern merchandizing, a success which many attribute to the fact that he was a children’s character marketed to appeal to adults––a youthful anti-establishment symbol packaged by the establishment itself for mass consumption. (Not unlike the Kid’s fellow yellow superstars, Bart Simpson and SpongeBob SquarePants. Coincidence?)

In 1896, William Randolph Hearst offered Outcault an outrageously high fee to bring the Kid over to his New York Journal. Outcault accepted, a move that fueled the already heated rivalry between Pulitzer and Hearst. Pulitzer hired artist George Luks (an Ashcan School painter better known for his realistic depictions of New York City street life) to continue drawing Hogan’s Alley, featuring a knock-off Yellow Kid. Outcault attempted to submit a Yellow Kid copyright with the Library of Congress, writing, “his costume however is always yellow, his ears are large he has but two teeth and a bald head and is distinctly different from anything else.” He later learned that a clerical loophole had only allowed him to copyright the term “The Yellow Kid.”

In the months that followed, both Pulitzer and Hearst fought to give their competing Yellow Kids more and more page space. To many critics, the so-called “Battle of the Yellow Kids” represented a trend in the decline of journalistic integrity, of which both the World and the Journal had been guilty for years. One vocal critic, New York Press editor Ervin Wardman, had tried many times to pin a name on the papers’ sensationalistic, exaggerated, ill-researched, and often untrue reporting, unmemorably calling it “new journalism” and “nude journalism.” When the competing papers finally sunk so low as to replace news content with comic strips, he had his name: “Yellow-Kid Journalism,” which was eventually shortened to “Yellow Journalism.” The Kid’s symbolism fits the term still today: slap-dash journalism aimed at the kid in all of us.

Primary image courtesy of The Yellow Kid on the Paper Stage.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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