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The Author of this Crazy Chinese Star Wars Comic Never Saw the Films

Maggie Greene is a collector of lianhuanhua (Chinese for "picture books”), and one day stumbled across a great find while visiting China: A Star Wars lianhuanhua produced in 1980. Greene, who is an assistant professor at Montana State University, wrote about it on her blog in 2014. Nick Stember, a masters student in British Columbia who specializes in translations of Chinese comics to English, fully translated all 142 pages of it. It’s worth reading through both the original and the translation to get the full effect of this puzzling but beautifully drawn little oddity.

This comic adaptation of the original Star Wars film was created around when The Empire Strikes Back was released in the States, but there was only limited exposure to any of the films in mainland China at the time. It’s obvious when looking through these pages that the artist[s] had never actually seen the film but were probably just shown a few stills and posters. Only occasionally do any of the characters look “on model" and, more often than not, the renditions are spectacularly off the mark as seen in some of these insanely great pages.

DARTH VADER IS A SUPREMELY METAL DUDE.

In this flashback to when Darth Vader turned to the Dark Side, he apparently also went totally Metal and started riding a triceratops and even grew a pair of breasts. There are a lot of pages in this comic that are obviously copied from other sources, and this one seems to rely pretty heavily on Frank Frazetta’s cover illustration of Princess of Mars.

OBI-WAN WAS A JEDI KNIGHT WITH A BITCHIN' STEED.

The artists took the whole "Jedi Knight" thing pretty literally in this flashback to the Clone Wars, combining a little bit of Spartacus with a complete swipe from the poster for the 1978 David Carradine film Deathsport.

OBI-WAN LOVES HIS J&B.

On two different pages we see prominent use of the J&B logo as decoration in Obi Wan’s home. This is pretty weird, but anyone who has a tattoo of Chinese characters but doesn’t fully know what they mean can’t poke fun at this. It just looks cool.

THE DEATH STAR TARGETS THE KENNEDY SPACE CENTER.

Apparently the galaxy isn't that far away, as the Kennedy Space Center is Vader’s target for destruction.

PRINCESS LEIA IS OBJECTIFIED LIKE NEVER BEFORE (OR AGAIN).

Princess Leia looks like a different person on every single page of this, and she’s usually drawn in a somewhat seductive pose. In her first appearance, we see her recording a holographic message for Obi Wan, but it looks like it’s about to get NSFSW (Not Safe for Star Wars).

STORMTROOPERS AND BOBA FETT ARE THE SAME THING.

Although Boba Fett does not appear in the first film, someone involved in this comic saw a picture of him somewhere because his uniform is used throughout in place of Stormtrooper attire (not knowing of course that a Fett/Stormtrooper connection would someday become canon). Also, that military-looking jet at the top of the page is supposed to be the Millennium Falcon.

CHEWBACCA IS JUST A GORILLA WITH A BANDOLIER.

It’s possible that the artists just got Star Wars mixed up with Planet of the Apes, but on some pages Chewbacca is drawn to look like this.

LUKE'S UNCLE OWEN STEPPED OUT OF A SPAGHETTI WESTERN.

Also, that tall guy with the rifle is supposed to be a Jawa.

THE SAND PEOPLE LOOK ALL WRONG.

Here, they are reminiscent of racist caricatures.

LUKE, LEIA, C-3PO, and R2-D2 SHARE A TOUCHING MOMENT.

There’s a lot of uncomfortable touching going on in this scene before Luke goes off to battle the Death Star. Leia seems to be performing some sort of blessing on him, and seeing C-3PO kiss R2-D2 and R2 actually hugging back is just not right.

THERE ARE PAPARAZZI ON YAVIN.

When Leia, Han and Luke make it to Yavin they are cheered on by adoring fans including teens taking snapshots. And yes, that short, gruff looking guy in the cosmonaut suit is Han Solo.

LEIA HAS TO SIT THROUGH A POWERPOINT ABOUT THE COST-BENEFIT ANALYSIS OF BLOWING UP THE DEATH STAR.

The whole Yavin section of this comic seems to rely on stock photos.

THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE DEATH STAR EXPLODES.

It's a pretty trippy ending to the Death Star battle. The guy on the left is Grand Moff Tarkin, and he looks as surprised by all this as we are.

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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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