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The Quick 10: Mr. Men and Little Miss

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Welcome to part three of our nostalgic children's book Quick 10s! Today we're visiting Roger Hargreaves' world of Mr. Men and Little Misses.

1. Mr. Tickle was the first Mr. Men character ever created. The idea for Mr. Tickle came about when Roger Hargreaves' son asked a simple question - "What does a tickle look like?" Hargreaves considered it and decided a tickle was a round, orange guy with long squiggly arms (the better to tickle you with, of course).
2. That was nearly 40 years ago - since then there have been more than 100 million books sold, 48 Mr. Men created and 42 Little Misses created. Not bad for the result of a funny question from a six-year-old!

3. After Roger died suddenly of a stroke in 1988, his son Adam took over Mr. Men and Little Miss, which I think is rather fitting and heartwarming. The first book written and illustrated by Adam is 2003's Mr. Cool.

4. If you have Mr. Small and Little Miss Star in your personal library, go check them out for author cameos. Mr. Small lives under a daisy in Mr. Robinson's garden and one day he meets Mr. Robinson's friend who happens to write and illustrate children's books. The friend? Roger Hargreaves, of course. Little Miss Star desperately wants to be famous and along her travels encounters a man, but all we see of him is his long legs. We find out later in the book that the man was Roger Hargreaves - he writes a book about her, making her the star she always wanted to be.

5. Does Stella McCartney have a great life, or what? She has a successful fashion line and a Beatle for a dad, of course, but she's also the only person to have a Little Miss book written specifically about her. Adam Hargreaves wrote Little Miss Stella to be used as invitations to one of her fashion shows. There are only 1,000 of these books in existence, so consider yourself lucky if you have one!
6. In 2001, a contest was held for children to create their own Mr. Men character. The winner was eight-year-old Gemma Almond, who came up with Mr. Cheeky. Mr. Cheeky was only sold in W.H. Smith stores; part of the profits went to a children's leukemia charity.
7. Some of the Mr. Men and Little Misses go by different names here in the U.S. For example, the U.K.'s Mr. Jelly is known as Mr. Nervous in the states. Mr. Mean is Mr. Stingy and Little Miss Dotty is actually Little Miss Ditzy (I think I prefer Dotty). There's also Mr. Fussy vs. Mr. Persnickety.

8. This is for the font geeks out there - depending on which book you're reading, the font is either Univers, Optima or Helvetica.

9. The Mr. Men characters have been developed into T.V. series on four occasions. The first was in 1975, just a couple of years after the books were first published. Another followed in 1983 that included the Little Miss characters as well (the Little Misses had just been created in 1981). A third, called Mr. Men and Little Miss, had a brief run between 1995 and 1997. The latest incarnation, The Mr. Men Show, started in 2008 and is still running on the Cartoon Network. Anyone watch? They have a pretty cool website that allows you to "meet" each character.

10. In the original books, each character comes from a different town - Mr. Happy comes from Happyland, Little Miss Contrary lives in Muddleland, Little Miss Dotty lives in Nonsenseland with Mr. Silly and Mr. Nonsense. Makes sense, right? But to pull things together for The Mr. Men Show, all of the Mr. Men and Little Misses were moved to a single township called Dillydale.

Do you have a favorite Little Miss or Mr. Man? I'm partial to Little Miss Curious and her question mark-shaped house, but Little Miss Stubborn hits a bit close to home as well. And if you could make your own Mr. Man or Little Miss, what would his or her name be? I kind of like the idea of Little Miss Suspicious, myself.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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