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The Quick 10: Stories Behind 10 Dr. Seuss Stories

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On this day in 1991, the world lost a classic writer and artist "“ Dr. Seuss (AKA Theodor Geisel). I know the _floss has done stories on Dr. Seuss before, so I thought we'd go a little bit different route today "“ the stories behind his stories.

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1. The Lorax. In case you haven't read The Lorax, it's widely recognized as Dr. Seuss' take on environmentalism and how humans are destroying nature. The logging industry was so upset about the book that some groups within the industry sponsored The Truax, a similar book but from the logging point of view. Another interesting fact: the book used to contain the line, "I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie," but 14 years after the book was published, the Ohio Sea Grant Program wrote to Seuss and told him how much the conditions had improved and implored him to take the line out. Dr. Seuss agreed and said that it wouldn't be in future editions.

horton2. Horton Hears a Who! Somehow, Geisel's books find themselves in the middle of controversy. The line from the book, "A person's a person, no matter how small," has been used as a slogan for pro-life organizations for years. It's often questioned whether that was Seuss' intent in the first place, but I would say not: when he was still alive, he threatened to sue a pro-life group unless they removed his words from their letterhead. Karl ZoBell, the attorney for Dr. Seuss' interests and for his widow, Audrey Geisel, says that she doesn't like people to "hijack Dr. Seuss characters or material to front their own points of view."

3. If I Ran the Zoo, published in 1950, is the first recorded instance of the word "nerd".

4. The Cat in the Hat was written basically because Dr. Seuss thought the famous Dick and Jane primers were insanely boring.

Because kids weren't interested in the material, they weren't exactly compelled to use it repeatedly in their efforts to learn to read. So, The Cat in the Hat was born, and I must agree: it's definitely more interesting.

5. Green Eggs and Ham. Bennett Cerf, Dr. Seuss' editor, bet him thaat he couldn't write a book using 50 words or less. The Cat in the Hat was pretty simple, after all, and it used 225 words. Not one to back down from a challenge, Mr. Geisel started writing and came up with Green Eggs and Ham "“ which uses exactly 50 words. The 50 words, by the way, are: a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.

marvin6. Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! It's often alleged that this book was written specifically about Richard Nixon, but the book came out only two months after the whole Watergate scandal. It's pretty unlikely that the book could have been conceived of, written, edited and mass produced in such a short time; also, Seuss never admitted that the story was originally about Nixon. That's not to say he didn't understand how well the two flowed together. In 1974, he sent a copy of Marvin K. Mooney to his friend Art Buchwald at the Washington Post. In it, he crossed out "Marvin K. Mooney" and replaced it with "Richard M. Nixon", which Buchwald reprinted in its entirety. Oh, and one other tidbit: this book contains the first-ever reference to "crunk", although its meaning is a bit different than today's crunk.

7. Yertle the Turtle = Hitler? Yep. If you haven't read the story, here's a little overview: Yertle is the king of the pond, but he wants more. He demands that other turtles stack themselves up so he can sit on top of them to survey the land. Mack, the turtle at the bottom, is exhausted. He asks Yertle for a rest; Yertle ignores him and demands more turtles for a better view. Eventually, Yertle notices the moon and is furious that anything dare be higher than himself, and is about ready to call for more turtles when Mack burps. This sudden movement topples the whole stack, sends Yertle flying into the mud, and frees the rest of the turtles from their stacking duty. Dr. Seuss actually said Yertle was a representation of Hitler. Despite the political nature of the book, none of that was disputed at Random House "“ what was disputed was Mack's burp. No one had ever let a burp loose in a children's book before, so it was a little dicey. In the end, obviously, Mack burped.

butter8. The Butter Battle Book is one I had never heard of, perhaps with good reason: it was pulled from the shelves of libraries for a while because of the reference to the Cold War and the arms race. Yooks and Zooks are societies who do everything differently. The Yooks eat their bread with the butter-side up and the Zooks eat their bread with the butter-side down. Obviously, one of them must be wrong, so they start building weapons to outdo each other: the "Tough-Tufted Prickly Snick-Berry Switch", the "Triple-Sling Jigger", the "Jigger-Rock Snatchem", the "Kick-A-Poo Kid", the "Eight-Nozzled Elephant-Toted Boom Blitz", the "Utterly Sputter" and the "Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo". The book concludes with each side ready to drop their ultimate bombs on each other, but the reader doesn't know how it actually turns out.

9. Oh The Places You'll Go is Dr. Seuss' final book, published in 1990. It sells about 300,000 copies every year because so many people give it to college and high school grads.

grinch210. No Dr. Seuss post would be complete without a mention of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! I couldn't find much on the book, however, so here are a few facts about the Dr. Seuss-sanctioned cartoon. Frankenstein's Monster himself, Boris Karloff, provided the voice of the Grinch and the narration for the movie. Seuss a little wary of casting him because he thought his voice would be too scary for kids. Can you imagine the cartoon with any other voice?! If you're wondering why they sound a bit different, it's because the sound people went back to the Grinch's parts and removed all of the high tones in Karloff's voice. That's why the Grinch sounds so gravelly.

Tony the Tiger, AKA Thurl Ravenscroft (who is also a singer in my absolute favorite Disney attraction, the Haunted Mansion), is the voice behind "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." He received no credit on screen for it, so Dr. Seuss wrote to pretty much every columnist in every major newspaper in the U.S. telling them exactly who the famous song was sung by.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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