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Watch "The Naked Writer" Write, Live (But Not in the Nude)

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Most of us who write for a living recoil at the thought of other people (outsiders!) watching us write, live, as it happens -- the masses would see not only our terrible typers typos, but also have a way to judge our ultra-slow progress. Most of us don't write in a gallery with a crowd watching. So it's surprising that author Silvia Hartmann has invited readers to watch her write her novel The Dragon Lords live on Google Docs. Yes, Hartmann has asked the world to watch every keystroke as it lands, every plot as it's laid down and later stripped out, and every lordly dragon as it is revealed. She started yesterday, on September 12th, and calls herself "The Naked Writer," although of course that is metaphorical, at least so far (one never knows what could end up in a Google Doc).

As I write this, the Google Doc is overloaded with viewers, despite the fact that Hartmann is not currently writing anything -- according to the end of the document (and her Facebook page), she's in a series of interviews. It will be interesting to see how she balances media attention with writing time, as this publicity stunt-slash-literary experiment picks up steam.

Nick StarFields & Self-Help Books

Hartmann has written previous fantasy novels under the pseudonym Nick StarFields, and has written a bunch of self-help books under her own name, sometimes styling herself as "Dr. Silvia Hartmann" (she apparently holds a "doctorate in ENERGY"). In addition to the many books on offer, she also operates sites like MindMillion.com, which offers to "Clear Blocks to Wealth, Prosperity, & Abundance" (one of its main features is a heavily search-engine-optimized page offering money-related clip art). This is a writer who knows how to sell stuff online.

But Hartmann's quirky side-businesses aside, she is in fact writing a novel online -- and is interacting with fans as she does. According to her website, fans proposed possible titles as the project began, and Hartmann selected "The Dragon Lords" from among those crowdsourced options. So far, the book is about a mysterious man who shows up, nude, on a woman's doorstep. The first sentence reads: "It was not every day that Mrs Delhany found a naked man in the driveway." The first section is devoted to a fairly pedestrian exploration of who this man might be, and so is the second -- though in the latest chapter, we start getting into the dragon-related material. It's not exactly Shakespeare, but it's worth a click, especially given what Hartmann said to The Guardian: "[The book] may well be a little sexy." Sexy dragons? Sexy dragon lords is my bet.

How to Follow Along at Home

If you want to watch the project unfold, check out Hartmann's Naked Writer Project site -- it has links to all the relevant stuff. She plans to publish the book on November 26, so the writing process will necessarily be pretty swift. For more on Hartmann and previous similar projects by other authors, check out Daily Dot's story on the project.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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