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The Quick 10: The Scrumdidlyumptious Roald Dahl

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Is there a kid out there who doesn't delight in the made-up words and fantastical worlds Roald Dahl created over the years? From giants that can clear the county with stinky whizzpoppers to little boys who live in peaches with insects, Dahl had stories to suit every type of imagination out there. He was one of my favorite authors as a kid, and I bet a lot of you have fond memories, too. Let's see if this Q10 brings some of them back.

1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory didn't start out as the classic we're familiar with today. It went through many revisions and Dahl reportedly scrapped the entire first draft titled Charlie's Chocolate Boy when his nephew declared it stupid. And at one point there was another irritating child who would get her comeuppance at the hands of the chocolate factory: Miranda Piker. You can read the whole chapter here.
2. The Witches contains a tribute to Dahl's mother "“ the grandmother in the story is based on her. He adored his mom and said she was "a rock, a real rock, always on your side whatever you'd done. It gave me the most tremendous sense of security. Her name? Sofie, which you'll also recognize as the name of the little girl in The BFG. That Sophie was technically named after Dahl's granddaughter, Sophie Dahl, who was in turn named after her great-grandmother.


3. In fact, Roald based many of his most famous characters off of people he knew in real life. The horrendous Miss Trunchbull from Matilda was inspired by a duo of equally scary people from his days at St. Peter's Prep from 1925-1929. The Matron of the school "disliked small boys very much indeed," he said, and the Headmaster wasn't afraid to use his cane on students.

4. The first book Dahl ever wrote was based on a script that was rejected by Disney. Walt Disney was so impressed by Dahl that he paid the tab for the 25-year-old writer to come to Hollywood, rent a car and stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel while he wrote The Gremlins. The movie was never made, but the book was. Because it was about little demons that cause failures in airplanes, Dahl didn't find it appropriate for children and it was never his favorite book.


5. Dahl was also an inventor, out of necessity. When his son Theo was just four months old, a New York City cab hit his baby carriage. Theo was severely injured and developed hydrocephalus (water on the brain). Not content to let his poor son suffer, Dahl became involved in the development of a brain shunt that would help drain the fluid from Theo's brain. A device already existed, but it often jammed up and could cause blindness and brain damage. Dahl recruited hydraulic engineer Stanley Wade and neurosurgeon Kenneth Till; together they invented the Wade-Dahl-Till valve, a vast improvement over the previous incarnation. By the time it was finished and perfect, though, Theo had made a full recovery and never got to use his father's invention. But thousands of other children benefited and the three men who designed it vowed to never accept a penny for their work.

6. The Twits was inspired by Roald Dahl's immense dislike of facial hair, especially beards. Really. Once a little boy approached him, accompanied by his bearded father. According to one of Dahl's close friends, Roald bent down and asked the little boy, "Do you like your dad's beard?" When the little boy shook his head, Roald replied, "I think it's disgusting. What do you think is inside it?" And if you loved The Twits when you were a child, then you're either going to love or hate this news: the film adaptation is scheduled to be released in 2012. John Cleese is writing the screenplay, which makes me feel pretty good about it.

7. Dahl made his mom take him to visit Beatrix Potter when he was just about six years old. Her books were his favorites; upon seeing her farm he immediately recognized it as the setting of Jemima Puddle-Duck. Apparently Beatrix was out in her garden when young Roald and his mom walked up. She was notorious for disliking children, despite her tremendous success in the field of children's books, and asked Roald what he wanted. He explained that he came to meet Beatrix Potter. "Well you've met her. Now buzz off," is what he claims she said.

8. If you pay attention, you'll find references to Dahl's other works in his books. For instance, James and the Giant Peach mentions the peach rolls off of a tree and through a "famous chocolate factory." And Vermicious Knids are mentioned in both James and the Giant Peach and The Minpins. They first appear in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but are expanded upon in the sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.
9. Matilda was almost completely rewritten. He finished the entire thing and decided when it was done that it just wasn't right. "I started the whole book again and re-wrote every word and I knew where I was wrong. I really had to re-write the whole book! And now I'm fairly happy with it. I think it's OK. But it certainly wasn't before." Makes you wonder what the first draft was like, doesn't it?


10. In addition to his 18 children's books, Dahl wrote for adults too. I was delighted to discover that he wrote Lamb to the Slaughter, an old Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode where a wife murders her husband by assaulting him with a leg of lamb, then cooks the evidence so police can't find the murder weapon. In fact, they eat it. That was one of six AHP episodes he penned. Dahl also wrote the script for You Only Live Twice.

It would be hard for me to name a favorite Dahl book, but I like the darkness of The Witches and remember getting to make flashcards of all of the made-up words in The BFG in school. What was your favorite?

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technology
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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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