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The Quick 10: The Baby-sitters Club

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Today is Ann M. Martin's birthday. That might not mean much to you if you're a male, especially if you don't have sisters, but she is the author (at least, at first) of The Baby-sitters Club series. You'd be pretty hard-pressed to find a girl in my general age bracket who didn't own a couple of these growing up. To celebrate such a monumental occasion, here are a few facts about the good old BSC.

bookcover1. There are 131 Baby-sitters Club books and 122 Little Sister books in print, plus all of the super specials and mysteries. I loved the Super Special when they went to Disney World and Karen freaked out at the Magic Kingdom because she really believed it when the disembodied voice in the Haunted Mansion told her that a ghost would follow her home. Oh, that Karen. She was always such a drama queen.
2. The character of Mary Anne is based on Ann M. Martin herself. Do you think Ann M. Martin also underwent an extreme makeover and went from dressing mousy to dressing cool (meaning: leggings and hats)? Despite this fact, Martin says Kristy is her favorite character and was based on her childhood best friend.
3. The idea to write about a group of girls who just looooove to babysit wasn't Martin's idea. It was her editor's idea, and Martin ran with it.

4. The characters didn't age in real time, obviously, since they were perpetually stuck in middle school. If Martin had allowed them to age in real time, they would have been 28 when the series finally ended.

5. The books created quite a few spin-offs. There were the Little Sister books, centered on Kristy's bratty step-sister Karen Brewer; The Kids in Ms. Coleman's Class, a spin-off of Little Sister about Karen's classmates at Stoneybrook Academy; and California Diaries, a series about Dawn when she returned to California. This series dealt with some pretty deep issues, including anorexia and and racism. There is also apparently a graphic novel of the first BSC book, which I am rather delighted by. Has anyone seen it?

claudia6. Remember the BSC notebook entries each girl wrote, which is how we know that Stacey dotted her i's with hearts and that Claudia couldn't spell to save her life? One single person at Scholastic hand wrote those entries for all of the girls. And I thought I had schizophrenic handwriting!
7. The series officially ended in 2000, but the last book came out in 1999. It was The Fire at Mary Anne's House. Between the series debut in 1986 and the finale in 2000, the books sold more than 175 million copies.
8. The books came out on a monthly basis for a while, leaving a very short turnaround time for Ms. Martin. She says a lot of the books had very little editing at all... which you can kind of tell if you go back and read some of them today. Not that I have. Not that I still own some, or anything.

9. Ann M. Martin stopped writing the books entirely herself at Stacey's Choice, #58. After that, she wrote a basic plotline and others filled in the details. You can tell which ones were ghostwritten because there is always a notation in the book that says "The author gratefully acknowledges So-and-So for their help on preparing this manuscript."

10. Sadly, there are no plans for a BSC reunion. Dang. I can't be alone in wondering what the girls would look like at 28, can I?

Tiff of "Stoneybook, Connecticut," blogged her way through a bunch of the old books over at Claudia's Room. She no longer does it, but there is quite a back log of recaps to read through, and she's pretty hilarious. I highly recommend it as a way to kill a little time and relive your childhood.

OK. Multiple questions today. What was your favorite book, who was your favorite babysitter, and what do you think the gals would be doing at the age of 28? Mine: I think Stacey was my favorite, for obvious reasons. I liked The Ghost at Dawn's House, Mary Ann's Makeover and Stacey's Emergency. Claudia has gone to art school, obviously, and is now working for Betsey Johnson. Stacey is on her third marriage and still perms her hair. That's about all I can say without getting unnecessarily mean. But you can be as mean to the teenage sitters as you want, as long as you share with the rest of us in the comments!

Have a Q10 request? I'm on Twitter and I'm all ears! Err... all keys. Something.

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.