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Quick 10: 10 Surprising Former Librarians

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Appropriately enough, I'm writing today's Quick 10 from my neighborhood public library. Since it's National Library Week, here's a look at ten people who once worked amongst the bookshelves.

images.jpeg1. Mao Zedong: Before he led the Communist Party of China, Mao worked as a librarian's assistant at Peking University between 1918 and 1919. He needed a job, and earned only eight dollars a month carrying periodicals to the readers and organizing shelves. The future Chairman said, "My office was so low that people avoided me."


2. Giovanni Giacomo Casanova: "The World's Greatest Lover" worked for 13 years at the castle of Count Waldstein in Dux, Bohemia. Down on his luck (and low on funds), Casanova asked for a favor, since the occultist Count was known to have an affinity for fellow adventurers and fascinating people. Casanova set out to catalog the Count's more than 40,000 volumes and clean the library, but he spent most of his time writing. Here, he wrote his famous Memoirs.

3. Beverly Cleary: This Newbery-award winning author and creator of beloved characters such as Ramona Quimby served as a Children's Librarian in Yakima, Washington.

After studying at the School of Librarianship at the University of Washington in Seattle, she took the job, where she enjoyed interacting with all sorts of children. Cleary's favorite guests were the ones who had home-made roller-skates and scooters and asked her, "Where are the books about us?" Her first of many answers: Henry Huggins and his dog Ribsy.

images-4.jpeg4. Laura Bush: The former first lady holds a master's degree in library science from the University of Texas. In addition to teaching in the public schools, she was a librarian in the Houston, Dallas, and Austin school systems. Mrs. Bush parlayed her passion and enthusiasm for reading during her time in the White House, launching with Congress the first National Book Festival in 2001. The 2007 festival welcomed more than 120,000 book-lovers to Washington, D.C.

5. Lewis Carroll: The talented author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass served as sub-Librarian at Christ Church, Oxford University (1885-1887). The perfect job for this avid reader, he kept track of the books and the borrowers in addition to tutoring students and lecturing in mathematics.

6. Jorge Luis Borges: Although he never won the Nobel Prize he deserved for his advancements in literature for Latin America and beyond, Borges did work as a public librarian in Buenos Aires. When he supported the allies during WWII, Juan Perón dismissed him from his position, offering Borges a poultry inspector position instead (he declined). Once Perón fell from power, Borges was appointed director of the Biblioteca Nacional, but stepped down when Perón regained control of Argentina. While serving in this prestigious position, Borges also taught literature at the University of Buenos Aires.

hoover.jpg7. J. Edgar Hoover: This future FBI Director got his start in government when he worked at the Library of Congress ("the world's largest filing cabinet") while attending night school at George Washington Law School. At GWU, you had to be a government employee to attend night school. He started as a messenger, but soon rose in rank to cataloger, then clerk. While working at the Library of Congress, Hoover mastered the Dewey Decimal system, which became the model for the FBI's Central Files and General Indices.

8. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Goethe explained his passion for the details of a librarian's job when he said, "The library organization proceeds little by little, slowly enough. I hold my course, and seek to push on from section to section. I profit occasionally from an hour of poetry, or a bit of scientific knowledge." Goethe worked at the Weimer Library, one of the most important libraries in Germany, where he meticulously organized and cataloged. His success here led to other branches asking for his help. When cleaning and organizing the disarrayed Jena library, Goethe needed more room for books, and his request to use an empty room was denied. He was determined to succeed, so much so that he broke through the brick wall to complete his project. Later, because of damaging dampness of the library to the books, Goethe wanted to break down a city wall, and did the same thing.

9. Eratosthenes of Cyrene: In addition to measuring the Earth's circumference, Greek mathematician and geographer Eratosthenes served as head librarian at the Library of Alexandria, and also personally tutored the Greek-speaking King of Egypt. Alexandria was considered the scientific and cultural center of the world in the third century B.C., and being a head librarian gave Eratosthenes the reputation of a universal scholar. He was a model bibliographer and possessed an all-around broad knowledge of many fields of study. He probably would have enjoyed mental_floss.

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10. Batgirl: When the comic wanted to generate female interest, a "grown-up" version of Batgirl appeared in January of 1967 in Detective Comics #359. In this later incarnation (the original, Bat-girl, was created in 1961), Barbara Gordon was the grown daughter of a Police Commissioner and worked as a librarian. She only began her crime-fighting career by accident, breaking up a robbery when she happened to be wearing her Halloween costume. Who was the victim of this crime? Bruce Wayne, of course!

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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