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The Quick 10: The Boxcar Children

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I think this may have been the #1-requested series when I asked what books you wanted to know more about last week. And I am a little embarrassed to admit that I haven't read a single one of them! I may have to remedy that soon. Anyway, ask and ye shall receive: The Boxcar Children Q10!

1. Of the 123 BC books and the 21 specials, only the first 19 books were written by the original author, Gertrude Chandler Warner. The rest just bear the tagline "Created by Gertrude Chandler Warner."

2. The first one was written and published in 1924, but it wasn't until its rerelease in 1942 that the series really found an audience.

3. According to the Kansas City Star, more than 50 million Boxcar books have been sold just since 1979, and that's not including any hardcover editions.

4. There are remnants of Gertrude's childhood sprinkled throughout her books. When she was a kid she lived right across the street from the railroad tracks; when she saw a caboose go by and could look right in to see a coffeepot and a table and a stove, her imagination ran wild. She also loved to pick wildflowers with her sister and would spend hours doing so at her grandparents' farm "“ Gertrude's favorite were violets.

5. You would think that a good old-fashioned book like The Boxcar Children could hardly raise any parental eyebrows, but when the book was first published, there were definitely some upset adults. "Perhaps you know that the original Boxcar Children raised a storm of protest from librarians who thought the children were having too good a time without any parental control," Gertrude once wrote to her fans. "That is exactly why children like it! Most of my own childhood exploits, such as living in a freight car, received very little cooperation from my parents."

6. We're lucky Gertrude was prone to illness because otherwise The Boxcar Children may have existed only in her imagination. She was quite sickly as a child and even had to drop out of high school due to her illnesses. Even so, Gertrude managed to land a job as a grade school teacher because there was a massive shortage in the profession because of WWI. When she had to take a break from that due to a nasty bout with bronchitis, she decided she would use the down time to do something she had always wanted to: write a book for herself. She decided if she had her druthers, she'd be living in a freight car, hanging her laundry out to dry on the little back porch area and sipping coffee made on the ancient stove. Thus, Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny were born.

7. Despite her commercial success, Gertrude Chandler Warner never left the city she grew up in "“ Putnam, Connecticut. She lived there for nearly 90 years until her death in 1979.

8. Warner never married and had no children.

9. Unlike many of the other authors I've mentioned over the past few days, it wasn't Warner's family that decided to continue the Boxcar tradition after she stopped writing them. In fact, the series was stagnant from her last book in 1976 (Benny Uncovers a Mystery) until the 1991 revival (The Haunted Cabin Mystery). That's when Albert Whitman and Company picked up the series and started to produce new ones.

10. Believe it or not, the Aldens are on Twitter! Here's Jessie, Benny, Henry, and Violet. That Henry is pretty adept in his Internet knowledge "“ in one Tweet he references John Hodgman to say that "He is an expert on many things. Including CATS WHO COMMIT CRIMES." But he also jumps back into Boxcar world with, "Mowed Dr. Moore's lawn. Earned $2. Bought potatoes."

OK, Boxcar fans, be honest: did you have a favorite Alden? Let us know who you wanted to be friends with and why.




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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]