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The Quick 10: 10 Facts About Stephen King

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It's Stephen King's birthday! Do you suppose he's celebrating somewhere with a Bloody Mary? (He's not: see Fact #8.) I know "“ just because a guy writes in the horror genre doesn't mean he loves all things creepy. But in King's case, I think he does. Anyway. Whether you like his writing or consider it fluff, he's one of the most successful and prolific authors out there, so today's Q10 commemorates the King of Terror's 62 years.

graves1. King and his wife, Tabitha, own "The Zone Corporation," a company that serves to head their three radio stations in Maine. One of them, WKIT, goes by the tagline "Stephen King's Rock "˜n' Roll Station" and has a mascot named Doug E. Graves. That's him in the picture to the left. The picture is from the website of Christian Hanson, the artist who made the mask, by the way. Only four were ever produced and at least one of them resides in King's private collection.

2. He's a hardcore Red Sox fan. Not only did he write a story about the Sox - The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (a former BoSox pitcher) - he also had a little cameo in the Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore movie Fever Pitch, which is about a crazed Boston fan. He plays himself and throws out the first pitch at a game. And, in 2004, he and Stewart O'Nan, another novelist, chronicled their reactions to the season that finally brought the World Series title back to Beantown. It's appropriately titled Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season.

3. You probably remember that King was hit by a van not far from his home in 1999. He suffered from a collapsed lung, a broken hip, a gash to the head and a leg broken in nine places. Afterward, King and his lawyer bought the van for $1,500 and when King was better, he wailed on it with a baseball bat before sending it to be crushed at a junkyard.

4. There may be a reason for the way his brain seems to be able to create chilling stories at such an amazing clip: he saw a friend get struck and killed by a train when he was just a kid. The idea that such a traumatizing event stuck with him and inspired his line of work is one that King shrugs off.

5. He wrote a musical with John Mellencamp. It's based on a house that Mellencamp bought in Indiana that came complete with a ghost story. The legend is that three siblings were messing around in the woods and one of the brothers accidentally got shot. The surviving brother and sister jumped in the car to go get help, and in their panic, swerved off the road right into a tree and were killed instantly. Of course, the three now haunt the woods by the house Mellencamp bought. The singer approached King about maybe doing something with the story, and between the two of them, they wrote songs and a plot for a musical called The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.

6. If you're a regular Q10 reader, you already know that Stephen King plays rhythm guitar for a band made up of writers. They're called The Rock Bottom Remainders and they "tour" about once a year. King shares the stage with Amy Tan, Mitch Albom, Matt Groening and Ridley Pearson, among others.

kingshouse7. He writes about Maine a lot because he knows and loves Maine. He grew up there and now lives in Bangor. Castle Rock, Derry, and Jerusalem's Lot are just products of King's imagination, but he can tell you exactly where in the state they would be if they were real. And his house is awesome. The gate is why I think he appreciates all things creepy, or at least has a pretty good sense of humor about himself. J.W. over at Odd Things I've Seen has written a post about his trip to King's manor, should you feel inclined to virtually drop in.

8. Maybe this is a surprise and maybe it isn't "“ King had pretty serious drug and alcohol addictions in the "˜80s. He says that he doesn't remember writing Cujo at all, really, and wishes he could. It came to a head when his family members confronted him with drug paraphernalia they had collected from his trash can, including Xanax, cocaine, beer cans and Valium. It was the eye-opener he needed: he got help and has been sober ever since.

9. King is an avid Lost fan and sometimes writes about it in his Entertainment Weekly column "The Pop of King." The feeling is mutual "“ the writers mentioned that King was a major influence in their work. There was a lot of speculation that he was the man behind Bad Twin, a Lost tie-in mystery published a few years ago, but he has debunked that rumor. He loves Hurley and Ben.

10. Of the five people in the immediate King family, four of them are authors. Tabitha King, Stephen's wife, has seven published novels. Joe, their oldest son, followed in his dad's footsteps and is a horror writer (I really like his books, for what it's worth). Youngest child Owen has written a collection of short stories and one novella (and he married a writer). Naomi, the only King daughter, is a minister and gay activist.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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