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10 Things We Learned from a Q&A with Charles Schulz's Wife

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Wikimedia Commons

A couple of weeks ago, Charles Schulz’s widow, Jean, did a Q&A with Redditors. She spent hours giving thoughtful, detailed answers to fan questions about her husband and the comic strip that has become a pop culture mainstay. Here are some of the things we learned.

1. Charles Schulz was a bit cranky.

One Redditor recounted a story where a young boy walking to school encountered Schulz near the ice arena he owned in Santa Rosa, California. A big fan of Peanuts, the child asked if he could shake Schulz’s hand. "No, get out of here, you will probably give me some disease," is what Schulz allegedly replied. Jean’s response:

Yes, he could be cranky particularly if he had person after person after person interrupting him from things. ... It does sound familiar, the boy on the way to school wanting to shake hands and the no I will probably get sick, it all sounds like there was a period when we had ice shows in December and we would both have colds. We would be greeting people ALL DAY LONG. two shows a day, for two weeks, and we would always get sick. So Sparky said I am not going to shake hands, or hug, at the ice show because I always get a cold. But that was different, and a different thing, just no—don't shake hands because I have a cold. But was he as bitter as that? No, that was a very bad day, poor kid and I can see why he would remember it. You would feel really rebuffed by that. But he was overall a pleasant person. If he had come off the golf course and had a lousy round, he would not want to talk to anybody. However, he loved to laugh, and when he was visiting his friends, or when he was on the golf course, they would laugh and joke and tease. So he was probably LESS cranky than a lot of people because he truly liked people. He was interested in people and in observing them and what they were like.

2. Camp Snoopy's abrupt removal from the Mall of America was not because of Team Schulz.  

After someone commented that it was a shame that the Mall of America changed their indoor theme park from Camp Snoopy to Nickelodeon Universe after Schulz died, Jean mentioned that his death had nothing to do with the decision:

You know, I'm going to clip that out and send that to the people at Mall of America because it was not a decision in their favor. But these are business deals that it's just difficult to even describe. And I've actually forgotten what happened, but typical American business deals. It had nothing to do with him passing—it really had to do more with contractual terms and my husband never owned the copyright to his comic strip, it was owned through United Media, but there was a contract for X number of years with Camp Snoopy and it's so convoluted I can't even remember. So they probably were unhappy that they did let it go, but it's big American business these days.

3. The names of the Peanuts characters were inspired by Charles Schulz's friends.

Image courtesy of peanuts.wikia.com

There was a Charlie Brown in the art instruction schools in Minneapolis that Schulz worked at when he was younger. The Van Pelt children took their last names from a man Schulz had been in the Army with, while Shermy was a childhood friend. Schroeder was a caddy at the golf course Schulz worked at as a teen, though Jean couldn’t remember if Schroeder was his first name or last name. The famous blue blanket Linus can’t live without came directly from Schulz’s daughter’s obsession with her own security blanket.

And yes, the elusive little red-haired girl was also based on a real person, a girl named Donna Johnson whom Schulz proposed to in the 1950s. Not only did she turn him down, she married someone else almost immediately. But none of that seems to bother Jean, who said, “Sparky did tell me once, ‘I always wanted to marry a little dark-haired girl.’ Meaning me. But he had an uncanny way of always saying just the right thing.”

4. Sparky was a romantic.

When asked what her favorite thing about her husband was, Jean replied:

Well I think I have to say that he was SO complimentary and so loving to me. It didn't matter what I did - if I found him at the office, that evening he would say ‘I just loved hearing your voice on the telephone today’ and then he would say ‘every time you walk into the room I fall in love with you again.’ I'd cook an ordinary dinner and he would say ‘Thank you so much.’
In the back of my mind I would think ‘Did he learn that somewhere? Is he just saying that because he read somewhere to compliment your wife once a day to have a happy marriage?’
But he was so sweet. And it was so wonderful to feel that adored.
And I can still feel that from him.
He also helps me find things. I would always lose things, and would think ‘Sparky will help me find it.’ And he has. So he's still taking care of me.

5. Jean has theories on what the Peanuts kids would be doing today if they had grown up.

But you sort of think Linus is probably teaching at some level. Lucy is probably running a software company (I'm making this all up, I have no idea) and Schroeder might be a conductor. I'm anxious to see this play and see what he proposed, though, because Pigpen is his favorite character. And Charlie Brown? He's such a soft, easy, guy that he'd be doing something like being an oceanographer or studying marine mammals or something. He has so much compassion. He might run the Humane Society. That would be perfect because one of the people Sparky truly loved was the person who ran the Humane Society in Santa Rosa. He would take in all the stray pets that nobody would want, and Sparky admired him so much because of his level of compassion for the animals. We live out in the country and we have rattlesnakes, and I would ask him to get rid of them and he would say ‘that rattlesnake isn't hurting anybody’. So yes, Charlie Brown is going to run the Humane Society.

6. Schulz didn’t select the name “Peanuts.” He wanted it to be called “Li’l Folks.”

Though Schulz had used the name “Li’l Folks” in the St. Paul Pioneer Press for a year and a half, the Syndicate turned down the name when he submitted it to him, citing a defunct comic strip that had been similarly titled “Little Folks.” Schulz suggested “Good Old Charlie Brown” as an alternative, but a Syndicate editor put his foot down on Peanuts.

7. Charles Schulz enjoyed a wide variety of other comic strips, from Popeye to Cathy.

He loved Popeye and he could draw a really good Popeye when he was in highschool. And Li'l Abner, and he said that when Li'l Abner and Daisy Mae got married, that was a big mistake because you need that tension. Part of movies and plays and books is tension between characters and they sort of lost that tension. Maybe they became a crabby couple, I can't remember. All cartoonists love Little Nemo, but the comic strips that he liked - Cathy (not so much for the drawing but for her situations), THE FAR SIDE (he thought it was so funny), he liked a lot of the New Yorker cartoonists too. Lynn Johnston he thought was a beautiful artist with a current comic strip that kept up with day to day and the kids were growing older, and Mutts by Patrick McDonnel, and there were many more. We have a friend whose strip is not widely syndicated, Drabble is the name of the strip, and LuAnn. And he might have read other comic strips that he might not have said much to me about. He used to love Prince Valiant, and he would say that he wanted to draw an adventure strip like Prince Valiant. And of course he ended up drawing the complete opposite.

8. Jean’s favorite character is Sally, and she used to call her husband “my sweet baboo.”

Photo courtesy of the Charles M. Schulz Museum

Well, it's very hard to have a favorite character but what I always tell people when they ask me that is I associate with Sally. I don't think I'm quite as dingy as her, but I call myself "clueless" so it may really be that I'm more like her than I know.

But maybe the reason I associate with Sally is because I used to call Sparky my sweet baboo - you say baby and baboo came out - and Sally torments Linus with that. So then I stopped calling him that, but he probably should have regretted that because it was a pretty nice term of endearment.

9. When Schulz wrote lines of music in the comic strip for Schroeder, he wrote the real thing.

Odds are, you probably never checked the artist’s work when he threw a few lines of music on a staff. But some people did.

When he drew the musical notes for Schroeder, he always used actual musical notes, and the first time he did that somebody wrote him and said ‘I can't believe you put a little bit of Beethoven's something symphony’ (it wasn't always Beethoven, there were a lot of musical strips. He realized that when that person wrote to him, people recognized and appreciated authenticity and you are writing for them. You are writing those Beethoven notes in your silly little comic strip for that person who is a musical expert. Appreciating your audience is important. It shows respect for them.

10. The idea to have the muted trumpet represent the voice of adults didn't come about until the Christmas special.

In the very early days of the comic strip, no adults were portrayed whatsoever. When necessary, they would appear as an offstage speech bubble, but never any physical representation.

Sparky used to say when people would ask him why there would be no adults he would say ‘the panels are too short and they wouldn't fit.’ But the truth is that it's abstract, it's not reality, and the minute you put an adult it in it, it becomes a real strip. And so when they did the first Christmas show, Sparky and the team would talk all these things out and they talked about adult voices. Sparky would say 'no we can't have adults in it' and [voice of Snoopy] Bill Melendez made up a trumpet with mute on it, and he got someone to do that and thought that was a great sound, and it's funny how that sound has become iconic. Because you hear people say ‘oh wha wah’ because it's the voice you don't want to listen to. Bill also made Snoopy's voice. He made some noises on the tape, and then sped it up. So it was all seat of the pants stuff. And then it became classic, because it worked.

You can hear more personal stories and insider views from Jean over at her blog for the Charles M. Schulz Museum.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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