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The Quick 10: Madeline

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I have to admit I never really got into the Madeline books, but I know they're a huge hit with some people. I'm not sure why I was never enamored of the gutsy little gal, but I might have to go back and revisit the series after learning these 10 facts:

1. Madeline has been seven or eight years old since 1939, which is when the little redhead made her debut.
2. If you're a Madeline fan, no doubt you remember the ending lines of each book: "That's all there is, there isn't any more." We actually have Ethel Barrymore to thank for this line "“ she first uttered on stage following the curtain call for the play "Sunday." She got such thunderous applause for her performance that to quiet the crowd, she announced, "That's all there is, there isn't any more." The line was catchy and eventually found its way into the books.

3. Madeline's character was inspired by the author's daughter, Barbara, but she gets her name from the author's wife. Madeline's life story was based on that of Bemelmans' mother, with a touch of his own childhood mixed in. Mrs. Bemelmans was educated at a convent, and Ludwig himself recalled his boarding school days when he and his classmates had to line up in two perfectly straight lines to go anywhere. And Madeline's famous appendix (or lack thereof)? While recovering from a biking accident, Bemelmans came across a little girl who had just had her appendix removed.
4. Despite popular belief, Madeline was never intended to be an orphan. She was merely away at school, according to Bemelmans' family. When the 1998 live-action movie was made, though, the screenwriters decided to go ahead and play up the "orphan" storyline, but this isn't original canon.

5. Of all of the Madeline books, the only one to win a Caldecott Medal was 1954's Madeline's Rescue.

6. When you're one of the richest men in the word, I guess you can afford to have one of the world's foremost children's authors paint a mural on your yacht - that's what Aristotle Onassis did. Ludwig Bemelmans designed and painted a scene just for the children's dining room on Ari's famous yacht Christina O long after he made his name with the Madeline books. You can also see Bemelmans' artwork in the Carlyle Hotel in New York "“ "Central Park" is his mural that decorates the Bemelmans Bar there. It's the only publicly accessible artwork by Ludwig Bemelmans that's still around. And yes, Madeline does have a little cameo. If you look close, you can spot her in the picture!

7. Although Ludwig Bemelmans has been dead since 1962, Madeline still continues her adventures, lining up in one of two straight lines, leaving the house at half past nine. That's because Ludwig's grandson, John Bemelmans-Marciano, has taken over the series. His titles include Madeline in the White House, Madeline in Texas and Madeline and the Cats of Rome. Sadly, Ludwig died before the grandson who would carry on his legacy was ever born.

8. Madeline's debut on the big screen was nominated for an Academy Award. The 1952 self-titled film lost the award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons) to a Tom and Jerry short called Johann Mouse.

9. Madeline is one of those "If at first you don't succeed" stories. It was first rejected several times before Simon and Schuster picked it up. Bemelmans was 41 when the first book was published (he did have a couple of not-as-successful children's books under his belt by that point, though).

10. In the 1990s, you could buy a Madeline doll that came complete with an appendectomy scar. Did anyone have one?

Stay tuned for next week's children's book Quick 10s! I'm still taking suggestions, so if you have a series you're dying to know a little more about, leave a comment or a Tweet. And if you've missed this week's posts, here you go:

Beverly Cleary
Amelia Bedelia
Mr. Men and Little Miss
Berenstain Bears

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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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