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Write That Novel, Already

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Today marks the start of another NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), an event during which new and veteran writers attempt to complete a brand new novel. As the site says, "The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30." Boasting over 79,000 participants in 2006 -- nearly 13,000 of whom actually completed the 50,000 word goal -- this is where aspiring novelists need to be.

Although NaNoWriMo is primarily about putting pen to paper (or, uh, fingers to keyboard), many NaNoWriMo novels have been published -- check out this list of 19 such novels, including the rather famous Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

Here are some impressive statistics demonstrating the growth of NaNoWriMo since its inception in 1999:

Founded: 1999 in Oakland, CA

Annual participant/winner totals:

1999: 21 participants and six winners

2000: 140 participants and 29 winners

2001: 5000 participants and more than 700 winners

2002: 13,500 participants and around 2,100 winners

2003: 25,500 participants and about 3,500 winners

2004: 42,000 participants and just shy of 6,000 winners

2005: 59,000 participants and 9,769 winners

2006: 79,813 participants and 12,948 winners

Number of official NaNoWriMo chapters around the world: Over 500

Number of K-12 schools who participated in 2005: Over 100

Number of K-12 schools who participated in 2006: Over 300

Number of NaNoWriMo manuscripts that have been sold to big-time publishing houses: Many (details below)

Percent of NaNoWriMo's net proceeds from donations and merchandise sales that went to build libraries for children in Southeast Asia 2004-2006: 50%

Number of libraries NaNoWriMo has built through this program: Twenty-two (three in Cambodia, seven in Laos, an anticipated twelve in Vietnam, pending 2006 financials)

Number of words officially logged by participants during the 2004 event: 428,164,975

Number of words officially logged by participants during the 2005 event: 714,227,354

Number of words officially logged by participants during the 2006 event: 982,564,701

To get started, check out How NaNoWriMo Works (in Ten Easy Steps) or consult the helpful book No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days. If you're a visual artist, check out NaNoMangO, a similar project for comics.

Have any _flossers participated in NaNoWriMo? If so, share your story in the comments!

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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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