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5 Obscure Looney Tunes Cartoons

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We’re all familiar with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig, but what about Owl Jolson, Ralph Phillips, or the Dover Boys of Pimento University? Between the 1930s and 1960s, Looney Tunes and its sister series Merrie Melodies produced a number of animated shorts that don't feature any of the usual reoccurring characters. These cartoons are often visually experimental, entertaining, and downright weird. Here are five obscure Looney Tunes cartoons.

1. The Dover Boys of Pimento University (1942)

Steampunk Looney Tunes? Okay not quite, but this parody of the now-forgotten children’s series The Rover Boys is full of stylized early-20th-century goodness. The three Dover boys, Tom, Dick, and Larry, are playing hide-and-seek with “their” fiancée Dora Standpipe during a “gay outing in the park” when Dora is abducted by Dan Backslide, a mustache-twirling villain voiced loudly by Mel Blanc.

But while Dora may act like a damsel in distress, it’s Dan Backslide who needs saving in the end. This cartoon broke away from earlier animation styles by having the characters hold theatrical poses for a longer-than-usual time on screen. Between that and the all-human cast, the cartoon seemed so strange to Warner Brothers that it almost got director Chuck Jones fired.

2. The Three Little Bops (1957)

A version of “The Three Little Pigs” done all in jazz by trumpeter Shorty Rogers. The Three Little Bops are swinging jazz musicians and the Big Bad Wolf is a square who can’t jam, so the pigs throw him out. This makes the Wolf mad, so he tries to destroy the clubs the pigs are performing in, which are made of—you guessed it—hay, sticks, and bricks. The story doesn’t end well for the Wolf, but then again, it never does. Trivia on this cartoon: the movie Pulp Fiction references The Three Little Bops when Mia Wallace, played by Uma Thurman, tells John Travolta’s Vincent Vega, “Don’t be [square]” and draws an imaginary square in the air.

3. I Love To Singa (1936)

Another jazz-related Looney Tunes, this time a spoof of The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson. A little owl named Owl Jolson loves to sing jazz, but his stern German parents want him to sing classical. Family strife ensues until a radio contest changes the father’s mind about his “jazz crooner,” turning I Love To Singa into an endearing tale about a family learning to love a child despite his differences. Al Jolson and Cab Calloway also performed the catchy song “I Love To Singa” in the movie The Singing Kid, which came out the same year. (Many years later, South Park also featured it in the episode "Cartman Gets an Anal Probe.") The cartoon hits some insensitive notes, making fun of stuttering and showing what seems to be a sexual assault between a telegram deliverer and a secretary, but man, that owl is cute.

4. From A to Z-Z-Z-Z (1954)

Ralph Phillips is a boy who can’t stop daydreaming.

Instead of paying attention in class, he imagines he can fly, fights his math problems on the chalkboard, flees from attacking Indians, deep sea dives, wins a boxing match, and turns into Douglas MacArthur. The cartoon, which seems modeled after the James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” has a sequel, Boyhood Daze, where Ralph daydreams after being sent to his room for punishment. In fact, the Looney Tunes crew seemed to like Ralph Phillips. A grown-up version of the character appears in two army recruitment films: Drafty, Isn’t It? and 90 Days Wondering. It seems that Ralph becomes a military man in the end.

5. The Bear That Wasn’t (1967)

A morality tale about a bear whose habitat is replaced by a factory and who is convinced by Corporate America that he’s a “silly little man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat." While the cartoon, directed by Chuck Jones, was originally made for MGM, it was based on a children’s book of the same name written by Looney Tunes animator Frank Tashlin. Though the book was published in 1946, Tashlin waited 20 years to animate it, turning down Disney in the process. Unfortunately, he didn’t like the cartoon, feeling it ruined the message of his book and calling it a “terrible experience” in an interview. Be that as it may, the animation alone is worth watching here.

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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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