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7 Things You Might Not Know About Calvin and Hobbes

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Though we can’t pick your friends, we strongly encourage you to ostracize anyone who expresses disinterest or disdain for Calvin and Hobbes, the brilliant comic strip illustrated by Bill Watterson from 1985 to 1995. For the December 2013 issue of mental_floss magazine, we scored a rare interview with the famously private Mr. Watterson. Here are seven more notes about the author, the boy, and his stuffed tiger. Tuna fish sandwich and toboggan optional.

1. Watterson to Spielberg and Lucas: Thanks, But No Thanks

Lee Salem, Watterson’s editor at Universal Press Syndicate, recalls fielding several calls in the 1980s from a who’s who of celebrities and producers who wanted to either get in business with the author or just pass along their admiration for his work. At one point, both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas reached out asking to meet with Watterson, but the artist, who felt schmoozing and publicity took his focus away from the strip, politely declined. (Salem did, however, forward a fan letter to Watterson from Stephen King. The editor didn’t open it, but we’d like to think it expressed satisfaction at the numerous decapitated and suicidal snowmen that populated Calvin’s front yard over the years.)

2. Calvin and Hobbes … and Robotman?

When Watterson was busy trying to find a home for Calvin and Hobbes in its earliest incarnation—the two were supporting characters in a strip titled In the Doghouse, about the grown-up struggles of Calvin’s older brother—United Feature Syndicate made the cartoonist an offer: Would he shoehorn an existing character, a sentient machine named Robotman, into some of Calvin’s fantasies? The syndicate had licensing deals cooking and was looking to get their intellectual property into newspapers to help push merchandise. Watterson, displeased with the crassly commercial nature of the request, refused. (Robotman got his own strip in 1985. And no, we don’t remember him, either.)

3. The Complete Collection Isn’t Quite Complete

To celebrate the strip’s 20th anniversary in 2005, publisher Andrews McMeel issued a hernia-inducing collection of Watterson’s entire body of work—sort of. Salem recalls a minor blow-up from readers when Watterson published two strips in the 1980s that depicted Calvin mocking the idea he might be adopted. In one strip, Calvin’s complains that “I’ll bet my biological mother would’ve bought me a comic book…” It was later changed to, “I’ll bet a good mother would’ve bought me a comic book…”

Another strip, featuring Hobbes in a washing machine, is missing from the collection entirely. Some have speculated that putting the tiger in a spin cycle might be an unwelcome hint he’s not real. No one, including Watterson, ever wanted to have that question answered.

4. Watterson Did License. A Little.

The persistent affection for Calvin and Hobbes is attributable in part to Watterson’s adamant refusal to water down his characters with toys, coffee mugs, and backpacks. While there was never a Garfield-esque empire of merchandising, he did occasionally offer his blessing for ancillary items. Calvin appeared on a Museum of Modern Art shirt commemorating an Ohio State University exhibition of comic art in 2001; two calendars, for 1989 and 1990, were issued; the book Teaching with Calvin and Hobbes was a tutorial intended to help students improve their language skills; finally, the duo mugged for a postage stamp in 2010, part of a Postal Service sheet of comic strip icons.

5. Urine Trouble

While any true fan of Calvin and Hobbes finds the ubiquitous, unauthorized car decal of Calvin peeing on automotive logos distasteful, at least one state took legal action: In the late 1990s, South Carolina slapped drivers sporting it with a ticket for $200, declaring it “obscene.” In a 2005 Q&A with readers to promote the Complete collection, Watterson dryly noted that he “clearly miscalculated how popular it would be to show Calvin urinating on a Ford logo.”

6. Spaceman Spiff Was Originally the Whole Idea

When Watterson decided to exit a floundering career in editorial cartooning, he imagined a number of strips and circulated them amongst the syndicates. One of them, Spaceman Spiff, was intended to be a parody of the Star Wars space fantasy genre. “It was so bad,” Watterson told the Dallas Morning News in 1987, “that I make fun of it in Calvin.”

7. The Last Calvin Strip Wasn’t Watterson’s Swan Song

Though he’s never returned to cartooning and only paints for his own satisfaction, Watterson did release a new piece of work in 2012: An oil-on-canvas depiction of Petey Otterloop, one of the characters in the comic strip Cul de Sac. Watterson donated the work to help raise funds for Parkinson’s research, a disease afflicting the strip’s author, Richard Thompson. Selling for over $13,000 at auction, it might just be the most affordable piece of Watterson art we’ll ever see: an original Calvin and Hobbes Sunday strip sold for a staggering $203,150 last year.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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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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