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The Quick 10: 10 Celebrity Children's Book Authors

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Today is Hans Christian Andersen's birthday; in his honor, IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) has organized International Children's Book Day to celebrate childhood reading and note the importance of children's books and literacy. By now we all know that Madonna has her own children's book series, but here are ten more celebrity authors you may not have known about:

1. John Travolta's book, Propeller One-Way Night Coach: a Fable for All Ages was written for Travolta's late son, Jett, just after his birth; it is being made into a movie, reportedly directed by Rob Morrow.

TO2. Terrell Owens, yes, that T.O., has a book titled Little T Learns to Share, in which a young boy struggles with being fair and sharing his new football. In the end, he decides football is no fun when played all alone.
3. Steve Martin has written a couple of very readable novellas, but I had no idea he had written a children's book. The Alphabet from A to Y with Bonus Letter Z! is a collection of alliterative couplets. From the letter A: "Amiable Amy, Alice and Andie / Ate all the anchovy sandwiches handy." That is so cute.

noelle4. Gloria Estefan has a series based on her bulldog, Noelle, in which the pet goes on "magically mysterious" adventures, available in English or Spanish. She covers themes such as fitting in, self-image, and discovering the things that really matter.
5. Tim McGraw's My Little Girl won the prestigious Mom's Choice Award® in February, chosen by a panel of judges including the founder of Reading Rainbow and creator of Baby Einstein. Not too shabby.

6. Dionne Warwick's Say a Little Prayer is a semi-autobiographical story about "Little D," who one day discovers her secret talent and is encouraged by her grandfather to embrace it. The book comes with an audio CD of Ms. Warwick singing "Jesus Loves Me."

freckles7. Julianne Moore's freckles obviously taught her a few things about feeling different and getting over it. Her heroine, Freckleface Strawberry, is the star of her own series.
8. Jamie Lee Curtis has co-authored, with Laura Cornell, eight books for children, covering every topic from empowerment (Big Words for Little People) to self-control (It's Hard to Be Five) to imagination and loss (Where do Balloons Go?).
9. Anyone with siblings can relate to Ray Romano's Raymie, Dickie and the Bean: Why I Love and Hate My Brothers. Except maybe the part where they're called Raymie, Dickie and the Bean, I mean.

10. A-Rod may be taking a cue from his, uh, friend, Madonna. His book, Out of the Ballpark, is autobiographical, telling the story of a young A-Rod who just wanted to play ball.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]