The Quick 10: 10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Harry Potter

With Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince coming out in the U.S. later this week, it's time to out myself as a Slytherin Supporter. Maybe you already knew that. Nothing against Gryffindors - I'm no Voldemort or anything - but I always tend to like the villains a little more than the do-gooders. To celebrate Harry and Co.'s sixth movie (and sixth book), here are a few facts that you may not have known about the gang in gold and red (and maybe a couple about the set in silver and green).

1. Hermione's name was almost "Hermione Puckle."hermione It has a sour tone to it, doesn't it? J.K. Rowling thought so, too, and changed to something that suited the character better. Rowling has said that Hermione has a healthy dose of herself in there, as she was quite the know-it-all herself as a child. Hermione was originally going to have a younger sister, but Rowling never found the right moment to stick her into the books.
2. Gilderoy Lockhart, the insufferably vain professor and celebrity from The Chamber of Secrets, was based on someone Rowling knows in real life. The rumor is that she based him on her ex-husband, but she has been quite adamant about denying that. "He used to tell whopping great fibs about his past life, all of them designed to demonstrate what a wonderful, brave and brilliant person he was. Perhaps he didn't really believe he was all that great and wanted to compensate, but I'm afraid I never dug that deep," she has said. "He's probably out there now telling everybody that he inspired the character of Albus Dumbledore. Or that he wrote the books and lets me take the credit out of kindness."

hedwig3. Hedwig, Harry's Snowy Owl, isn't entirely accurate. After the first book was accepted for publication, she found out Snowy Owls are diurnal. And it was during the writing of book two that she realized that Snowy Owls are silent, meaning that Hedwig's knowing hoots and conversational noises weren't quite true-to-life. She admits this was just a research hole on her part, but says readers should feel free to assume that her unusual talents are just part of her magical ability. Incidentally, although Hedwig is female, she is played by a male in the movies because females aren't wholly white like males are.

4. Collecting unusual and interesting names and words has been a lifelong habit for Rowling. She has said that she loves reading lists of them, from war memorials to baby name books, and made it a point to remember her favorites. Some of them found a new home in the Harry Potter books. She makes up some of the words too - "quidditch" is a Rowling original. She filled up five pages of made-up words that started with "Q" before she hit on one that sounded right. "Voldemort" and "Malfoy" were also invented.

hogwarts5. If a muggle were to happen across Hogwarts, all they would see is nothing but a ruined castle with large signs on it saying 'keep out, dangerous building.' This might sound a bit suspicious to those of us in the States, but it seems like the U.K. is rife with castle ruins.
6. Fred and George Weasley were born on April Fool's Day. Go figure. While we're talking about the Weasleys, there was a Weasley cousin named Mafalda who got edited out of The Goblet of Fire in order to make room for the love-to-hate-her invasive "journalist" Rita Skeeter. That's probably best - Ginny Weasley is supposed to have been the first girl born to the Weasley family for several generations, so scrapping Malfalda supports that backstory.

7. Harry, Ron and Hermione all have wand cores based on their birthdays: the Celt assigned trees to people based on that kind of like we assign gemstones today. She had already assigned Harry's holly-based wand when she discovered the Celt tree calendar and found that she had accidentally assigned him the "right" type of wood. She did the same thing with Draco Malfoy (Hawthorn wood). But Ron and Hermione both purposefully received wands based on their birthdays - ash for Ron and vine wood for Hermione. She didn't carry this convention out for all of the characters, though.

8. Filch's cat, Mrs. Norris, takes her name from the Jane Austen book Mansfield Park. Fittingly, Austen's Mrs. Norris is also rather sour and bitter.

snape9. Snape was partially based on a teacher J.K. Rowling once had. She likes to write him, though, because she finds him such a pathetic creature.
10. As you probably know, King's Cross station is where young wizards hop on the Hogwarts Express to get to school. What you might not know is that the station holds special meaning for J.K. Rowling: it's where her parents met. They were coincidentally both headed to Arbroath in Scotland when they met on the train. King's Cross was intentionally chosen as the gateway to Hogwarts in homage to Rowling's parents.

There's obviously a ridiculous amount of Harry Potter trivia out there, and since Harry Potter fever is about to sweep the world again, we might as well share it. If you've got some good HP trivia, share it in the comments! And if not... well, let me know if you're a Slytherin supporter too.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]