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Berkeley Breathed

Ack! 12 Things You Might Not Know About Bloom County

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Berkeley Breathed

While his contemporaries Bill Watterson and Gary Larson have largely stayed away from sequential art since they both retired in 1995, Berkeley Breathed surprised fans in July when he resurrected Bloom County and its full cast for his Facebook followers. For some, it was a re-introduction to the 1980-89 satirical strip that lampooned the cultural and political excesses of the decade. For others, it was something new.

Fortunately, penguins age well. Take a look at some pressing facts about Opus, Milo, and the rest of the gang:

1. It Was Inspired By To Kill a Mockingbird.

The small town featured in Bloom County was a rural, value-infused community that was home to frequent outbreaks of political hysteria. Breathed told an interviewer in 2009 that the setting was very much inspired by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and its Maycomb, Alabama. Opus, the dreamy-eyed penguin of the strip, was a reflection of Lee’s juvenile protagonist, Scout. “I will say that Opus is really Scout from Mockingbird in many ways,” Breathed said. “He’s a motherless innocent, adrift and wandering about in an adult world of confusion, betrayal, and incivility.”

2. Opus Was Meant to be a Throwaway Character.

Despite his literary pedigree, Opus wasn’t intended to become a fixture. At the time Breathed created the penguin—who would go on to become the breakout star of the strip—he thought he’d be good for an appearance or two and then shuffle off. But readers reacted strongly, and Breathed decided to keep him on.

3. Bill the Cat Started as a Parody of Garfield.

Breathed didn't read comics growing up and knew little about them. He was especially perplexed by the popularity of Garfield, the lasagna-snorting cat that some critics perceived as overly commercial. Breathed developed the hairball-spewing, gasoline-drinking Bill the Cat as a way to mock the character, believing he would be too repulsive to merchandise. Instead, he became a popular (if slightly ratty) plush collectible.

4. It Won the Pulitzer Prize.

After years of sharply skewering public officials and social issues, Breathed was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1987. With the exception of Doonesbury, few syndicated strips ever receive the honor. The recognition was opposed by Pat Oliphant, a political cartoonist who found the strip to be full of ”shrill potty jokes."

5. You Probably Haven’t Read Most of the Strips.

Collected comic strips in trade paperback became bestsellers in the 1980s, but Breathed was forced by the publishers to cut most of his strips from the collections, and he once estimated two-thirds of his output never left the comics pages. It wasn’t until IDW began offering a five-volume set in 2009 that the entire run of the series was offered. (To make sure it was complete, the publisher checked their compilation against the personal collection of a fan that had taken the strips and pasted them into binders as they were originally printed.)

6. It Got Mary Kay to Stop Animal Testing.

Little Brown and Company

Breathed ran a series of strips in the late 1980s that featured Opus trying to rescue his long-lost mother from an animal testing facility owned by Mary Kay Cosmetics. "When I drew a rabbit with clips pulling its eyelids open, it was effective precisely because of its accuracy," Breathed later told Time. Mary Kay sales representatives grew alarmed at the practice, which prompted the company to issue a moratorium on the testing.

7. One of the Book Collections Came with a Record.

Eager to lampoon the rock-star lifestyle, Breathed placed Bill the Cat as a frontman for a heavy metal band named Deathtöngue (later renamed Billy and the Boingers). When the strips were collected as part of the Billy and the Boingers Bootleg paperback in 1987, Little, Brown and Company inserted a flexible record into the book that featured two singles from bands that had answered an open call for tracks. Each won a prize of $1000, with Mucky Pup’s “U Stink But I Love You” taking the B side of the record.

8. Opus Was Sued Over Flying Toasters.

The winged, flying toasters of After Dark’s screen savers were ubiquitous in the 1980s—so much so that when the Delrina software company asked Breathed to design a screen saver of his own, he depicted Opus firing a rifle at the airborne appliances. After a lawsuit and 1993 court ruling, Delrina switched out the wings on the toasters for propellers.  

9. Bill Watterson Sent Breathed Original (Nude) Art.

YouTube

At the time both of their strips were in newspapers, Breathed was in regular correspondence with Bill Watterson, the press-averse creator of Calvin and Hobbes. The two had disparate opinions on merchandising—Watterson had no regard for it, while Breathed was happy to profit from t-shirt sales—and their opposing views would sometimes be expressed in cartoons the two circulated privately. At a 2010 Comic Con appearance, Breathed briefly flashed some of Watterson’s unseen art, including a wall-mounted Opus and a bare-bottomed Ronald Reagan. (In return, Breathed once sent Watterson a drawing of Bill the Cat, Hobbes, and Blondie in a not-safe-for-work position.)

10. The Strip Upset the National Federation for Decency.

When Breathed introduced a fundamentalist character named Edith Dreck in 1987, he wasn’t up to speed on his Yiddish translations—“dreck” is derived from ”excrement.” At least, that was according to Rev. Donald Wildmon, Chairman of the National Federation for Decency. Wildmon called for Breathed to be fired for “religious hatred and bias.” In a lesson why you should never pick fights with cartoonists, Wildmon's likeness ended up in the strip for a week.

11. Opus Starred In His Own Animated Special.

YouTube

Though not precisely based on Bloom County, A Wish for Wings That Work was a 1991 animated special that aired on CBS. (It was an adaptation of a book Breathed had published that featured Opus asking Santa for a pair of operational wings.) Breathed disliked the end result and hoped to mount an Opus feature film, which went through several years of development without materializing.

12. Harper Lee Wrote Breathed a Fan Letter.

When Breathed ended his second spin-off strip, Opus, in 2008, he claims he received a letter of protest from an early inspiration: Harper Lee. Lee had written to him over the years expressing admiration for the strip and asked him to continue. “I should have begged her to bring Scout back,” he said. (She eventually did.)

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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