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The Quick 10: Goosebumps and Fear Street

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We're going a little more contemporary with today's children's books Q10, partly because I had a lot of requests for it, and partly because I adored R.L. Stine, especially the Fear Street series. I recently discovered a treasure trove of my old books at my parents' house, but there was nary a Stine book among them. I wonder what I did with those... until I find them, these facts will have to tide me (and you) over.

1. There were 62 of the original Goosebumps books (there were several spin-offs) from 1992 to 1997. The first one was called Welcome to Dead House.
2. I've mentioned this on the Q10 before, but it's too interesting to pass up - the man who has spent the past 20-25 years scaring the daylights out of kids (in good fun, of course) was also the creator and head writer of Eureeka's Castle, a children's show on Nickelodeon featuring lovable puppets.
3. I think these stories were pretty harmless - a fun scare for kids who liked to spook themselves a little bit. But obviously some adults disagreed with me - the Goosebumps books were some of the most challenged books of 1990-1999. In fact, at #15 on the Top 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books list, the Goosebumps was challenged more than Madonna's Sex (#18) and The Anarchist Cookbook (#59).

4. You just never know where inspiration for a story will strike. Stine was out walking his dog when suddenly a book title popped into his head: Say Cheese and Die. He had no plot in mind, but instantly knew it would have to involve an evil camera of some sort. It became the fourth book in the series and was eventually adapted for the Goosebumps T.V. show on Fox Kids. A young Ryan Gosling played the main character, Greg.

5. According to Mr. Stine, Goosebumps is actually more popular in Europe than it is in the United States. In Italy, the series is called Piccoli Brevedi, which means "little shivers."

6. Stine was originally signed to a contract to do just six Goosebumps books - no one expected them to be such a hit. Even though he was a big fan of the horror genre, Stine had never tried writing horror until these books - he had been writing kids' humor and joke books under the name "Jovial Bob Stine."

7. With 250 million Goosebumps books sold and 80 million Fear Streets sold, Stine clearly doesn't lack fans. Not among those legions of "˜Bumpers? His son, Matt. "He has never read one of my books," Stine said once in an interview. "He does it just to make me crazy." However, Matt does have a cameo on the cover of a Fear Street book called Perfect Date. Matt also inspired a character in Eureeka's Castle. Stine's son was rather clumsy as a child but didn't let on that he was hurt or embarrassed when he had accidents - "I meant to do that," was a constant refrain in the Stine household. So R.L. worked him in to the character of Batly, a bat who was not so great at flying but shared Matt's "I meant to do that" mantra whenever his flights ended in disaster.
8. As is common with children's series writers, Stine turned to ghostwriters when kids demanded his books faster than he could write them. He used several ghostwriters, but the one I find most intriguing is Eric Weiner - I bet some of you _flossers are familiar with the name. He's a travel writer and longtime NPR collaborator. But R.L. is no slouch in the writing department - he has said it takes him about 10 days to churn out a Goosebumps book.

9. Stine wrote the movie novelizations for Spaceballs, Big Top Pee-Wee and Ghostbusters II: Storybook.

10. Stine says he has never in his entire life suffered from writer's block, which kind of makes me hate him.

So - favorite Goosebumps or Fear Street book? My favorite was the Fear Street Cheerleaders series. I'm not sure if I should admit that or not, but there you go.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]