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The Quick 10: Drop Everything and Read (AKA: Happy Birthday, Beverly Cleary!)

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Happy D.E.A.R. Day! That's Drop Everything and Read, in case you don't have fond memories of D.E.A.R. from Beverly Cleary's Ramona Quimby books. Yes, it's a real educational holiday and the date was chosen to honor Beverly Cleary's birthday "“ she's 94 today. In honor of Ms. Cleary's birthday and D.E.A.R., here are a few facts about Ramona, Henry and the lady who brought them both to life.

1. Ramona readers no doubt remember the Quimby family lived on Klickitat Street, as did Henry Huggins. This might sound pretty familiar to residents of Portland, Oregon "“ it's a real street, and it was just a few blocks from the place young Beverly Bunn called home. The Klickitat are actually a Native American tribe that counts Klickitat County, Klickitat River and Klickitat, Washington, among their namesakes.
2. You may have noticed that even though times have changed since Henry Huggins was first published in 1950, Cleary's writing has not. Even when books are reprinted, older references such as long woolen underwear, soda fountains and ink pots are left in. Cleary herself is the same way "“ although she could be doing her writing on a Mac or a P.C., she prefers to write her tales on yellow legal pads. "Some pages I revise once or twice and some I revise half-a-dozen times. I then attack my enemy the typewriter and produce a badly typed manuscript which I take to a typist whose fingers somehow hit the right keys. No, I do not use a computer. Everybody asks."

3. If you ever thought the wholesome episodes of Leave it to Beaver felt like they could have come right off of Klickitat Street, well, so did the Leave it to Beaver people. They had Cleary write a series of tie-in books in the early 1960s.
4. Cleary likes to start her new books on January 2, but don't be looking for a new one anytime soon. Her last effort, Ramona's World, was published in 1999. Although she says she has jotted down a few thoughts about a new book, she has no plans to write it as of now.
5. According to Beverly, Henry Huggins was inspired by a specific friend of hers, and all of his friends were representations of kids she grew up with and attended library story hour with. "My best friend appears in assorted books in various disguises," she said. "She was Austine in Ellen Tebbits. And in Ramona's World, she appears as the woman who is concerned about children waiting for the school bus in front of her house. She lives in Portland and we talk about once a week."

6. Cleary had to elope with her husband because her parents disapproved of their marriage. The reason? Cleary's parents were Presbyterian and Clarence Cleary was Roman Catholic. The pair married in 1940 and celebrated 64 blissful years until his death in 2004. They had a set of twins named Marianne and Malcolm, the latter of whom served as inspiration for Keith in Cleary's The Mouse and the Motorcycle.

7. If you're looking for morals in Ramona stories, well, you're going to be looking for a while. "As a child, I disliked books in which children learned to be 'better' children," she once said. In fact, she started writing because she didn't believe any of the books in her library (she was a librarian before she was a writer) properly represented the way kids really acted. Her beliefs were affirmed when a little boy approached her desk and wondered where all of the books about "kids like us" were hidden. She decided to write one, although that didn't happen for another 10 years.

8. She's a bit reclusive. Cleary doesn't grant many interviews, carefully selects her public appearances and lives in the country in California out of public view.

9. Ramona was never meant to be a main character. As Cleary was writing Henry Huggins, she noticed she had unwittingly made all of her characters only children. So she tossed in a little sister for a character named Beezus and named her after a neighbor girl. Ramona quickly became the star of the show.
10. Beverly wasn't always a great student. Moving from rural Yamhill, Oregon, to the big city of Portland, really didn't agree with the first-grader. She was in poor health and missed school a lot; she wasn't crazy about her first-grade teacher and really didn't take to reading. That all changed when she moved on to second grade and was assigned to a teacher she adored. With help from her teacher and encouragement from the school librarian, Beverly had mastered reading by third grade and was devouring every book she could get her hands on. To this day, she says, her bad first grade experience makes her sympathetic to kids who struggle with reading.

I know we must have some Cleary fans reading. Which of her books was your favorite? Mine was Ramona Quimby, Age 8, but I also have fond memories of the Christmas pageant in Ramona and her Father when Ramona's mom makes her sheep costume out of old pajamas.

And if you want to participate in D.E.A.R today, it's easy: drop everything and pick up a book for 30 minutes! I think I might actually dig up one of my old Ramonas and wallow in a little nostalgia for half an hour.




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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]