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4 Comic Strips that Totally Reinvented Themselves

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Blogspot/Bryan Scott Dugan

Reading the comics page each day, that little grid of squares can look like an unchanging edifice. Charles Schulz has been dead for more than a decade, but Snoopy still flies his Sopwith Camel. Dagwood still inhales gigantic sandwiches, and the Family Circus still is read only by your grandparents.

But back in the day, comic strips changed often. Characters came and went. Plot lines and themes fluctuated as the nation grappled with the Great Depression and World War II. And some strips—not all, but more than you might expect—changed their course completely. Here are four that you might not have recognized in their original form.

1. Blondie

Cartoonist Chic Young had created a string of strips about airheaded young women (The Affairs of Jane, Beautiful Bab, and Dumb Dora) before landing on, simply, Blondie. The strip, which debuted in 1930, depicted the adventures of a vivacious flapper named Blondie Boopadoop.

One of her boyfriends was, you guessed it, Dagwood Bumstead. What you might not expect was that Dagwood was the son of railroad tycoon and billionaire J. Bolling Bumstead. Blondie and Dagwood just dated casually until something went terribly wrong—newspapers began canceling the strip. Aspirational visions of huge wealth didn’t go over so well during the Depression. 

So Young had Blondie and Dagwood fall desperately in love and, in 1933, marry. J. Bolling Bumstead conveniently disinherited his son for marrying below his station. That meant that Blondie and Dagwood were free to move into the suburbs and enjoy a more relatable middle-class existence.

2. Mary Worth

Wikimedia Commons

Before the modern-day Mary Worth, a gray-haired meddler lovingly mocked online, there was Apple Mary. The Depression-era comic was begun by Martha Orr in 1934 and starred a little old lady who sold apples on the street. Frank Capra had directed a movie the year before, Lady for a Day, that featured just such an old lady, so the type was fresh in the public’s imagination.

Orr left the strip in 1939 to raise her family, passing on writing chores to Ohio columnist Allen Saunders (who also wrote a strip called—really—Big Chief Wahoo). He immediately saw the possibilities in taking a new approach to the strip. “Laboring over the continuity, I chanced upon a happy idea one day,” he wrote many years later. “Instead of treacly melodrama, why not do stories of the sort that were used in popular magazines for women? No current story strip dealt with romance and psychological drama instead of action.”

The new approach caught the syndicate’s attention, and the strip’s title was soon changed to Mary Worth’s Family and, eventually, Mary Worth. The titular character left the apple cart behind, had an artistic makeover that shed some pounds, and never looked back. 

3. Beetle Bailey

Courtesy of ComicVine

For a strip that’s practically synonymous with the word “Army,” it’s amazing to learn that Beetle Bailey didn’t start his run in the comic pages serving Uncle Sam. Instead, for the first six months of the comic strip, Beetle was a college student (the comic debuted in 1950, the same year as Peanuts). 

But like Blondie in her early days, Beetle had problems of a business-related nature. Only 25 papers had bought the strip after those first six months, and King Features Syndicate was not pleased. So cartoonist Mort Walker (still kicking today at age 89) signed him up for the Army and shipped him off to Korea. Some 100 papers promptly added the comic.

After the war, Walker further revised the strip into the one we know and (sometimes) love today. In 1954, the Tokyo edition of the military Stars & Stripes paper dropped “Beetle,” citing negative effects on troop morale. The press back home lampooned the move, and another 100 papers bought the strip.

4. Snuffy Smith

Courtesy of Blogspot

Although not the most popular strip today, the hillbilly-themed Snuffy Smith has endured for 94 years. But it didn’t feature rural stereotypes at first, and it wasn’t even about Snuffy Smith. The ancestor of the present-day strip started in the Chicago Herald and Examiner, under the title Take Barney Google, F'rinstance. Drawn by Billy DeBeck, the strip starred Barney Google, a sports fan and gambler. The strip became hugely popular. (Barney Google’s horse, named Spark Plug, provided the nickname for a young Charles M. Schulz.)

In 1934, Barney Google met hillbilly Snuffy Smith in the redneck village of Hootin' Holler. The new character gained popularity, and by the time the decade ended, the strip had been rechristened Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. By 1954, Google left Hootin’ Holler, but the strip kept its focus on the town and its colorful residents.

The strip hasn’t totally forgotten its original namesake, though. Barney Google returns annually for a few strips, long enough for readers to wonder: “Who on earth is that?”

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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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