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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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]