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The World's Thickest Book

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It's official "“ at 4,032 pages, all resting on a spine over a foot thick, the world's thickest book is The Complete Miss Marple. The massive volume, a collection of the 12 novels and 20 short stories by Agatha Christie featuring the guileless spinster detective, was revealed to the public at a press event at Foyle's Charing Cross Road bookshop in London on Wednesday, May 20.


Taking part in the event was Christie's grandson and inheritor of her estate, Matthew Prichard, who congratulated HarperCollins, publisher of Christie's books, on creating a "piece of literary history," and said, "I hope that a lot of very nice people come to possess one."

Asked later what his grandmother would have made of the record-winning tome, he said, "I think that she'd be amazed that we were all in Foyle's, 35 years after her death, celebrating Miss Marple."

Prichard also admitted that he hadn't tried to read the new book yet. "I've got a very bad leg at the moment so I don't think I could do it," he said, laughing. "It's heavier than it looks!"

The book's unveiling was not without its own suspense, of course "“ Guinness Book of World Records adjudicator John Pilley, armed with a tape measure, was on hand to determine whether or not the book actually met all the world record criteria. Luckily, it did, and Pilley had the pleasure of awarding the book's publishers the official Guinness World Record certificate. Afterwards, Pilley, himself an Agatha Christie fan, asked Prichard to autograph one of her books for him.

A few quick facts about the World's Thickest Book:

The book is as much a technological feat as a literary one, if not more so. The book is 4,032 pages long, all collected in a spine 322 mm (12.6 inches) thick, bound in maroon leather with gilt writing on the cover and appropriately enough, paged edged with red speckling. At 8.02 kilograms, or about 17.6 pounds, it weighs as much as a medium-sized dog, even more when it's in its bespoke suede-lined wooden box. It's made up of 252 separate 16-page sections, which are hand-sewn together and to the spine. For awhile, it was questionable whether they could find a guillotine powerful enough to trim the book's considerable edges. It is, I can say with the satisfaction of a person who likes to see inordinately large things, massive.
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Though no one's tried it yet, reading at a pace of 30 pages an hour, it would take around 134 hours to finish the book.
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The book contains an introduction by best-selling British mystery writer, Kate Mosse, who has often claimed that Agatha Christie is one of her favorite authors, and a water-color illustration of St. Mary's Mead, Miss Marple's fictional village, based on a drawing Christie herself created for The Murder at the Vicarage.
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Through the 12 novels and 20 short stories reproduced in the book, Miss Marple solves 43 murders: 12 poisonings, six strangulations, two drownings, two stabbings, two people pushed to their deaths, one rather grisly burning, one blow to the head, and one arrow through the heart. In all, 68 crimes are committed, including the murders. There are 11 philandering spouses, 21 romances, 22 false accusations, and a whopping 59 red herrings. And, as solid evidence of either Miss Marple's ability to keep a cool head or the English obsession with tea, characters drink 143 cups of tea.
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Only 500 of the books have been made for sale and they'll go at a cost of £1000 each. Check out AgathaChristie.com if you want one.

A few facts about Miss Jane Marple:

agatha-christie.jpgMiss Marple's first appearance in a novel was in Murder at the Vicarage, which was published in 1930, and she made her last appearance in 1976's Sleeping Murder. Despite the 46-year span, Christie only wrote 12 novels featuring Miss Marple "“ rather paltry when compared with the 33 novels her other famous detective, Hercule Poirot, stars in. Christie's grandson, Matthew Prichard, said that his grandmother was careful not to overuse the diminutive, elderly character. "It was never her intention, and I use her words, that she should be "˜haunted' by Miss Marple for the rest of her life," he said.
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Miss Marple was inspired by a character from another of her books, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd "“ a spinster busy-body whose enjoyment of gossip keeps her well-informed about the goings-in in her little village. Christie also said that both characters were inspired by her grandmother and the women of her grandmother's circle.
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Miss Marple has lived her entire life in the fictional village of St. Mary's Mead, a prototypical English village of a certain era whose chief occupation is gossip. While she's often dismissed as "having never seen the world," Miss Marple maintains that there's quite enough human nature, wickedness and frailty in a typical English village to go around, as well as more than ample opportunity to study it.
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In They Do It With Mirrors, one character accurately summed up Miss Marple's ability to get to the bottom of some rather grisly crimes: "Because you've got a nose for that sort of thing. You always had. You've always been a sweet innocent looking creature, Jane, and all the time underneath nothing has ever surprised you, you always believe the worst."
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Miss Marple has never had any formal training as a detective and relies primarily on her keen intelligence, powers of observation, and knowledge of human nature.
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She has never married and is what British novels refer to as "a maiden aunt," a sweet, frail-looking, fluffy sort of person who seems from a by-gone era. As such, she does typical maiden auntie things, like knit. Over the course of The Complete Miss Marple, Miss Marple knits 47 garments. She's supported by her own means and by her nephew, Raymond West, a successful mystery writer.
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Miss Marple has been portrayed on stage and screen by a number of actresses, including Margaret Rutherford, Angela Lansbury, Helen Hayes, Joan Hickson, and Geraldine McEwan.

A few quick facts about Agatha Christie:

agatha-christie-2.jpgThis is crime writer Agatha Christie's third Guinness World Record: She holds one for best-selling author, and another for her play, The Mousetrap, which is the world's longest running play "“ it's still going, now in its 57th year.
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Christie sold her first novel in 1920, The Mysterious Affair at Styles; within just a few years, she had solidified her reputation as an ingenious and ruthless plotter, never sentimental and always unexpected. Before her death in 1976, The Queen of Crime wrote 80 detective novels, six romance novels (under a pseudonym), 13 plays, and 154 short stories.
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All of her books are still in print, selling around 500,000 copies a year, and she's the eighth most borrowed author from British libraries. With more than 2 billion of her books floating around the world, Christie is one of the most published authors in history "“ outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible.
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She's been immortalized in wax at Madame Tussaud's, has a rose named after her, and every September, England celebrates the author's birthday with Agatha Christie Week.

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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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