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Creatively Speaking: Zach Kanin

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It's Zach Kanin week here at mental_floss, and I'm so excited about it, I'm going to lock the Caps and type that all over again: IT'S ZACH KANIN WEEK HERE AT MENTAL_FLOSS!


Zach's responsible for many of the hilarious cartoons over at The New Yorker and has a funtabulous new book out called The Short Book: Tall Stories, Freakish Facts, & the Long & Short of Being Small in a Great Big World.

If you're short, if you're friends with someone short, married to someone short, in love with someone short, envious of someone short, sympathetic to someone short, or just plain short on time, you really want to pick up a copy of this little gem, right over here. Tomorrow, Zach will be sending us our own cartoon for the caption contest, which he'll personally judge. And then Thursday, well, you don't even wanna know what's coming Thursday...

Look, I'm so excited about it, I'm getting ahead of myself. First, a little background on the little man: in addition to working for The New Yorker, at 5' 3", Zach was the shortest president ever of The Harvard Lampoon.

shortbook.jpgAnd now, the interview! Click on through to find out how Zach came up with the idea for his book and other fun things like why Romans used to starve children and constrict their growth. And for more great Kanin cartoons, check out this page at the Cartoon Bank.

1. First let me say, given the nature of your subject matter, you might only be inclined to offer short answers here, but feel free to ramble. Our readers like brevity, but they also appreciate depth. So start by telling us how you got the idea for this snazzy mix of trivia and humor.

Well, I happen to be short, and I've always been fascinated by myself. But it wasn't as natural a connection as that. Originally I was just going to write a book about short animals, for short animals. My publisher explained that books for animals don't sell that well, with the exception being snakes, who are voracious readers. On the other hand, snakes measure themselves lengthwise, so the whole topic would seem rather banal to them. It turns out that almost 80% of people consider themselves short (even if that doesn't make statistical sense), so I figured there might be a potential human market.
When I finished going through puberty and lo and behold, I was way shorter than I expected, I was devastated. And frankly, from an uninformed view, being short seems like it sort of sucks. Not only are there a lot of obvious drawbacks (it's nearly impossible for a shorter man to date a taller woman, it's advantageous to be taller in sports, it's harder to reach things in the kitchen), but there are many studies coming out now suggesting that taller people make a lot more money, taller people are smarter, short people are more at risk of heart attack and arthritis, etc. And I wasn't going to try to debunk these myths, but rather I wanted to write a book that shows: 1) many of the most talented and successful people in history were and are short; and 2) being short is something that you cannot change (unless you endure costly and painful leg lengthening surgery) so just be happy. And mostly I just wanted to make a funny book. Should the book make short people feel good about themselves? Maybe, that would be great! But I basically didn't want to get all worked up about it.

2. I love the book's subtitle: Tall Stories, Freakish Facts, & the Long & Short of Being Small in a Great Big World. Was that your idea?

No. That was my editor's idea. My working subtitle was: The Exciting Sequel to "˜The Da Vinci Code'!

3. Because you're such a brilliant and hilarious cartoonist too, how did you go about picking spots for illustrations and cartoons?

The illustrations are very organic, in that I planned them out as punch lines while I was writing. Originally we were going to hire someone else to illustrate the book, so whenever I thought of a funny idea for a drawing or photograph I would just leave a note saying to draw whatever crazy thing. I didn't hold back on my ideas, because I figured it was going to be someone else's problem to figure out how to draw them. But in the end it was my problem, I think for that reason. I had already included the drawings so much in text that to have someone else come in with a different sense of humor would have been confusing. I didn't want the illustrations to just repeat jokes that were already in the text, so each one had to have it's own additional joke sort of playing off the text. For example, I talk about the size of a whale at one point, and then there is a drawing of a tiny guy with a tiny car yelling at a whale to "get in the car!" even though there is no mention of the automotive exploits of whales in the text.

4. How did your experience with The Harvard Lampoon and The New Yorker help you in writing the book?

One of the most important things you can learn in comedy writing is how to edit out all the crap. Essentially that means just going through and taking out all the bad jokes, but it is harder than it sounds, because when you re-read humor a hundred times you start to forget what was funny about it in the first place. And you start to remove any sentences that aren't funny but are important because they tell you what the hell is going on. Editing the Lampoon was perfect training for this. And then editing and drawing cartoons at The New Yorker was a similar deal "“ a cartoon caption needs to be pithy. So, when the first revision of my book was 150 pages too long, I was (begrudgingly) ready to tackle it.
Also, at the Lampoon, I was surrounded by funny, hideous people. We were all so ugly that there was nothing to do but make jokes and draw.
The New Yorker staff is a lot better looking, which threatened to soften me, but luckily one of my main responsibilities there was to narrow down the caption contest entries. For those who don't know, on the back page of The New Yorker there is a drawing of a cartoon that needs a caption, and about 7-8,000 people send in captions every week. I had to read all of them, which almost made me blind. And I need my eyes for my work. I forget why that helped with the book. I guess it just made me a stronger, more isolated person.

5. There were so many curious factoids in the book. I had no idea Alexander the Great wore a child's set of armor, for instance. Nor did I know musician Prince was only 5' 2". (He looks at least 5' 3" in Purple Rain, don't you think?) While doing your research, was there one fact that totally surprised you?

Actually, Alexander the Great didn't wear a child's set of armor. That was a joke. I consider lies to be jokes. However, many people think Alexander was about 5'2" based on a set of armor found in Macedonia that is believed to be his. This is unlikely though, because he would not have been able to fight so effectively in the style of the times had he been that short, so it is more likely that the armor belonged to a female warrior. So, Alexander the Great didn't wear a child's set of armor, but he did possibly own some undersized ladies' armor for some reason.
A lot of the facts I found surprised me. To me, the most interesting stuff was about royal families keeping dwarfs as servants and jesters (Romans used to actually "manufacture" dwarfs for this purpose, by starving children and constricting their growth). Jeffrey Hudson was one such dwarf who lived in the court of Charles I of England. He introduced himself to the queen by popping out of a pie he had been hiding in (he was 18 inches tall at the time). Later, he killed a man in a duel, was exiled from England for 10 years, and returned, mysteriously 21 inches taller. There was also the story of the 1'11" spy, Richeborg, who the Orleans family dressed up as a baby in order to deliver messages across enemy lines during the first French Revolution.
But I would have to say my favorite anecdote in the book is about James Brown. On January 8, 2007, days after Brown had passed away, two Atlanta residents were having an argument about how tall James Brown was (he was around 5'6". I actually met James Brown when I was President of the Lampoon, and he appropriately and inexplicably would only refer to me as "˜the Little General.') Anyways, these two men are arguing about whether James Brown is 5'6" or maybe 5'7" and so one of them takes out a gun and shoots the other one twice in the stomach. The guy who gets shot then goes to his car, pulls out his gun, and tries to shoot the first guy in the face, but misses. Then they both walk to the police station and the first guy confesses. That's how important height is.

6. There's a great section in the book that compares all the minimum height requirements for some of the top rides and amusement parks across the country. Did you take a road trip to gather these facts?

I wish. Instead, my girlfriend, Christina Angelides, took a plane trip to New York City, where I told her I would wine and dine her. Then when she arrived, I showed her my beautiful, windowless, basement apartment and set her up with a computer and a library card so she could help me find facts for the book for the next several months. I believe she tracked down the amusement park information.

7. It's interesting to see how so many of the great artists and composers over the centuries were short. Do you think there's something to height and artistic talent? Like big and tall people excel at sports, forcing the shorties to engage in other extracurricular activities?

I would like to believe that there is some sort of correlation like that, but I can't really bring myself to. I mean, with a book like this, you'd expect a lot of statements like, "And therefore, short people are the greatest," and, "thus, we can see that the person of inferior stature, is in fact of superior nature." (Actually, now I wish I had included that second one in the book.) The point is, I think that so many people are considered short (almost half of all people), that obviously you are going to see a lot of talented people fall into that category. Do I believe there is some sort of Napoleonic complex that drives shorter people to excel? For starters, Napoleon wasn't even short for his time, he was one-and-one-half inches taller than the average Frenchman. So even Napoleon couldn't have had a Napoleonic complex about being short (although one of his many autopsies revealed that his genitals were extremely petite, which he might have felt insecure about. This fact cannot be confirmed however, because when his body was exhumed, his genitals had been stolen! [That is another fact that cannot be confirmed.])
"¦And back to my point. The real question is about causality. Is ridicule on the playing field forcing short people into their rooms where they can work on their art? Were Voltaire, 5'2", and Kant, 5'0", deciding between careers as professional soccer players or a life of the mind, and a cynical recruiting coach told them they'd never make it pro? Or, instead, is it just that when looking at the talented short people of the world we notice that most of them are in fields where their height is not a disadvantage (i.e. not sports). I don't know. There are just too many people in the world. Sometimes it makes me depressed.

8. So are you on a short book tour now? Any place our readers can meet you?

I am, sort of. In Barnes and Noble and many other bookstores, The Short Book is on the reference shelf, between LSAT practice books and dictionaries. So I decided to go on tour promoting law schools. That way, when people go to buy practice books they will see my book. And I have always felt that the world needs more law students.
So far I have done several readings in New York and Boston, and I have some in the works for Providence and LA and a few other places. Those dates and locations will be up on my book blog,, when they are scheduled. And remember, all proceeds from the book go towards curing shortness.

9. If you could have dinner with any short, dead person from history, who would it be?

Pablo Picasso, 5'4". He owes me money.

If Picasso isn't available, I would pick Rabbit Maranville, 5'5", who was the leading National League shortstop from 1914-1919 (not including 1918 when he was in the navy). He was a huge practical joker, often leaping into his teammates' arms, handing eye-glasses to the umpire, and one time faking his own, brutal homicide.

If Rabbit Maranville isn't available, I would choose Ludwig Van Beethoven, 5'4", because he knows where Picasso hangs out and I really need that money.

10. What's next for Zach Kanin?

I've got my hands full drawing cartoons for The New Yorker, but I have a few secret projects in the works and I've been doing a lot of writing and painting. I was also thinking of starting a sandwich shop in my apartment called "Slammers." It would only be open for one hour a day and I need reservations at least one day in advance so I know how much food to buy.
Browse through past Creatively Speaking posts here >>

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Smart Shopping
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