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On Smurf Turf: Remembering the Snorks

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In 1958, Belgian artist Pierre Culliford, who went by the name Peyo, illustrated a comic in the magazine Spirou that featured a diminutive supporting character with blue skin that assisted the hero Johan in his quest for a magic flute. Johan was soon overshadowed, with readers demanding more of the curious sidekick and his friends. By 1959, Culliford had a strip focused exclusively on Les Schtroumpfs, or The Smurfs. A little over two decades later, his creation became an international sensation with Hanna-Barbera’s animated series. Debuting in 1981, it ran for nine seasons.

Like any children’s commodity, it wasn’t long before similar works began to spring up. In the case of The Smurfs, both Hanna-Barbera and producer Freddy Monnickendam decided that if anyone was going to emulate their success, it might as well be them. Accordingly, Snorks—essentially the story of underwater-dwelling Smurfs with breathing tubes—premiered on NBC on September 15, 1984.

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Snorks may be the best-remembered of The Smurfs knock-offs, but they were hardly the first. The fall 1981 season also brought Trollkins, a bizarre hybrid that existed somewhere between The Dukes of Hazzard and The Smurfs, about a society of tiny creatures imperiled by outside forces; an adaptation of the video game Pac-Man, airing in 1982, picked up on this narrative thread, with Pac-Land under duress. So did Monchhichis, about tree-dwelling monkeys threatened by the Glumpkins.

Each of these stories revolved around pint-sized creatures who wished to live in peace, while larger, belligerent persecutors attempted to exploit or destroy their existence—a framework used to great success with Smurf village and its problems with the human villain Gargamel.

By virtue of being more crassly imitative, Snorks was something different. Like The Smurfs, the characters enjoyed using their own noun to season their speech, “snorking around” their undersea kingdom or commenting on “totally snorky” incidents. While they came in different colors, their body type was generally the same: bulbous.

Brought to Hanna-Barbera by Smurfs production house SEPP International, producer Freddy Monnickendam, and his collaborator Nic Broca, the Snorks had an unusually elaborate backstory. According to their lore: In 1643, a ship was overtaken by pirates and began to capsize, though the captain managed to save himself from drowning by finding an air pocket. As he struggled to stay afloat, he took notice of a tiny sea kingdom in the water that appeared filled with humanoids, but with odd features—including a snorkel protruding from their heads. When he got back to dry land, he implored people to believe his story; the Snorks, in turn, told their descendants about the giant they had once encountered.

The Snorks series appears to be set in contemporary times. In the series, Snorkland occupants Allstar Seaworthy and Casey Kelp eat kelp burgers, use sand dollars for currency, ride seahorses for transport, and try to avoid the wrath of Governor Wetworth, a salty saltwater politician. Tooter Shellby, the Urkel of the ensemble, could only communicate via sound effects, which often sounded like he was operating a whoopie cushion.

Critics, who usually had nothing but contempt for the Saturday morning lineup of the 1980s, didn’t expend much venom on Snorks. Writing for the Tallahassee Democrat, Ellen Klein noted that the snorkel-spouting creations did an admirable job of educating preschoolers on the benefits of cooperation.

“The Snorks don’t drive fast cars or get involved in cosmic battles between good and evil,” Klein wrote. “The cartoons are non-violent and non-sexist, and simple enough for a toddler to understand.” The series itself was “not brilliant,” but “inoffensive.”

On the heels of such high praise, Snorks stuck around for a total of 65 episodes, airing on NBC and in syndication from 1984 until 1988.

Despite Monnickendam’s involvement with both the Snorks and The Smurfs, the obvious crossover event never materialized. The closest Hanna-Barbera ever came was a 1984 Saturday morning preview special titled Laugh Busters, which featured a number of their established and debuting animated series. While both groups of little people were featured, they didn’t share any scenes together. Viewers did, however, get a consolation prize: Mr. T met Alvin and the Chipmunks.

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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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