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The Berenstain Bears and the Quick 10

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Even though our little girl won't need them for a while, we recently put up some wall bookshelves in the nursery. It was no struggle to fill them -- between the two of us, Paul and I have a vast collection of Berenstain Bear books from our own childhoods. And it looks like a lot of you guys once had pretty good collections going as well -- there were a lot of requests to check out the Berenstain Bear series! Here are a few facts about the Bear clan.

1. The first Berenstain Bear book was published in 1962 and was called The Big Honey Hunt. It was published by Dr. Seuss' own imprint, Beginner Books. More than 260 million copies have been sold since then (that's for the whole series, of course, not just The Big Honey Hunt).

2. Well, I thought we had a pretty good collection, but there are more than 250 books under the Berenstain Bear banner. We don't even have a third of them!

3. It was just Mama, Papa, Brother and Sister for almost 25 years (Sister was born in the 1974 book The Berenstain Bears' New Baby; Brother has been around from the beginning). But in January 2000, it was announced Mama was pregnant again in the book The Birds and the Bees and the Berenstain Bears; a contest was held to name the latest little Berenstain. When the votes were tallied, the winner was clear "“ Honey Berenstain made her debut in The Berenstain Bears and Baby Makes Five in August 2000.

4. Jan and Stan Berenstain met on their first day of class at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts (UArts) and were married five years later.

5. It may not surprise you too much to know that Mama and Papa are loosely modeled after their creators, Jan and Stan Berenstain. "I'm not quite as dumb as [Papa] seems to be sometimes, and Jan is not quite as wise and patient as Mama, but she is Mama," Stan Berenstain once said.

6. Stan Berenstain's art career took a completely different turn from where it was when he was in the army. During WWII, he spent his days doing detail drawings of plastic surgery procedures for facial wounds. Although perhaps his training came in handy for The Berenstain Bears Go to the Doctor. No?

7. If you're like me, you're a little wary of the recent Hollywood trend of taking beloved childhood memories and turning them into big-budget movies. The Smurfs? Monopoly? Really? I just don't know about that, and I don't know about a CGI-Live Action version of the Bears, either. But it's on the books to be directed by Shawn Levy, who directed the Night at the Museum movies. We can expect to see the Berenstains maneuvering through our modern world in late 2011/early 2012. Levy knows he's messing with a classic and doesn't plan on any radical changes. "It's warm-hearted comedy about family, and a different kind of family. I think the movie will be witty but never sarcastic," he says. Color me skeptical.

8. The 2011 movie won't be the Bears' first foray into the entertainment industry, though. They've had two television series over the years "“ Michael Cera voiced Brother Bear in the 2003 version - and a series of holiday specials that were aired on NBC in the "˜70s and "˜80s. Here's a little clip of The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room, which happened to be one of my favorite books:

9. Just like in yesterday's Mr. Men series and the Amelia Bedelia post the day before, the family writing tradition has been carried on by the authors' kin. In this case, it's Michael Berenstain. He's been writing about things from trolls to wizards for more than 30 years and started partnering with his mom on Bear books since Stan passed away in 2005. Sometimes you can tell which books Michael has worked on "“ as a author who was primarily focused in the Christian genre before, his Berenstain Bears titles include The Berenstain Bears Show God's Love, The Berenstain Bears Say Their Prayers and The Berenstain Bears Go to Sunday School.

10. Unlike the Ramona books, recent additions to the Berenstain collection have included modern updates like cell phones and video games.

What was your favorite Bears book? I loved Too Much Junk Food, Too Much Birthday, Forget Their Manners, Get Stage Fright and Get the Gimmies. Geez. There's an awful lot of morals in there "“ no wonder my parents didn't mind buying Berenstain Bear books for me! Also, check out Jason's quiz from last year:



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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]