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The Quick 10: Curious George Gets _flossy

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Curious George and The Man in the Yellow Hat have been around for nearly 70 years, and yet the little monkey has the same appeal to kids today as he did back in 1941. Here are a few facts "“ including H.A. and Margret Rey's narrow escape from Hitler "“ that you may not have known about George and his creators.

1. Curious George showed up in another H.A. Rey book before getting a series of his own. The book is titled Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys and it's still in print today, although the focus is less on Cecily G. (for giraffe, of course) and more about how it's "The First Book About Curious George!" If you buy the book, though, don't go looking for a monkey named George "“ the one that goes by the name "Fifi" in the book is the one that would eventually become the classic character.


2. The Man in the Yellow Hat never had a name in any of the books or their resulting cartoons"¦ until the 2006 film, when his name was given as "Ted Shackleford." He's just Ted in most of the movie, but a deleted scene revealed his surname as well.

3. Is a George by any other name as Curious? Our inquisitive little monkey friend is known by many other names around the world. He's "Peter Pedal" in Denmark, " "Nysgjerrige Nils" in Norway, "Nicke Nyfiken" in Sweden, "Hitomane Kozaru" in Japan, and "Choni Ha'Sakran" in Israel.

4. Although he's plain old George in the U.K., it wasn't always that way "“ at first he was renamed Zozo because it seemed rude to have a monkey that was seemingly named after then-King George VI (that would be the current Queen Elizabeth's dad).

5. If the Reys hadn't been quick thinkers, Curious George may have never been. They fled Paris, France, on homemade bicycles just hours before Hitler's army invaded during WWII. As you can imagine, fleeing on two wheels doesn't really leave much room for luggage. But the Reys decided they definitely wanted to bring several in-the-works manuscripts with them and managed to pack five in their meager belongings. One of them was the first Curious George book. It makes George's love of his bicycle a little more poignant, doesn't it?

6. That first book was published just a year after H.A. (Hans Augusto) and Margret fled Paris. Since then, more than 30 million copies of George books have been sold, and since the book has been translated into 16 languages (including Yiddish, Afrikaans and Braille), kids all over the world have had the pleasure of reading about George's adventures.

7. The drawings in the Curious George books are deceptively simple, but make no mistake that the Reys knew what they were doing. They were both trained artists and Margret even studied at the Bauhaus.

8. If you've ever noticed that some of the books credit only H.A. Rey and seem to leave poor Margret out of it completely, there's a reason. There were so many children's books on the market written by women at the time that George's marketers thought having a male (or ambiguous) author might make the book's appeal a bit broader. Once George was established as a hit, Margret was given the credit she deserved. Margret was in charge of writing and plot while Hans generally stuck to ideas and illustration.

9. It's no surprise the Reys wrote about monkeys and giraffes and other zoo animals "“ Hans grew up right by the Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany, and took great inspiration from it. Margret was an animal lover and whenever the two traveled together, one of the first stops on their list was the local zoo.

10. George has some fans in very high places. Or at least, he did. The CEO of Vivendi Universal, a media conglomerate that owned Curious George publisher Houghton Mifflin at the time, decided the little monkey would be a perfect corporate mascot for the brand. While he never became the official mascot, he did turn up in ads for Vivendi in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times in 2001. The CEO resigned in 2002, however, and by 2006 Houghton Mifflin had been sold again. I'm glad "“ I don't really want to see a beloved children's character shilling for a corporation, but maybe that's just me.

Are there any George fans reading? What's your take on the fairly recent revival - just as good as when you were a kid or not?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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