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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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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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