CLOSE
Original image

The Quick 10: Encyclopedia Brown

Original image

Many of you wrote last week (or the week before) and suggested Encyclopedia Brown for a Quick 10, saying that many of us probably have developed our _flossy ways thanks to the boy detective. Somehow, despite a love of trivia, those books never found their way into my hands as a kid. So, wondering what so many of you were raving about, I bought one last weekend.

Where have I been?! How much fun is Encyclopedia Brown? I can just imagine that legions of pre-teens were inspired to set up a detective agency in their parents' garage after checking out Leroy's adventures. On second thought, maybe that's why my parents never introduced the series to me"¦ at any rate, thanks for helping me solve the "What's the Big Deal About This Book?" mystery. As a reward, here are a few facts about the little boy with the big brain.

1. Encyclopedia Brown isn't based on anyone "“ at least, not really. "He is, perhaps, the boy I wanted to be -- doing the things I wanted to read about but could not find in any book when I was ten," Sobol once said.
2. Looking at Sobol's bibliography, it's actually pretty clear that his interests are just as varied as those of the boy he writes about. He has written more than 65 books, but many of them aren't children's books or even fiction. He has written nonfiction titles that include The First Book of Stocks and Bonds and Lock, Stock and Barrel, a collection of short biographies of men in the Revolutionary War. He also wrote The Wright Brothers of Kitty Hawk, a fictional biography of Orville and Wilbur.

3. Encyclopedia Brown wasn't Sobol's first go at writing mysteries. Just prior to his success in the world of children's books, Sobol wrote "Two Minute Mystery," a syndicated column. He later created the similarly-titled Two Minute Mysteries, a series aimed at kids a bit older than the E.B. audience.

4. More than 50 million Encyclopedias have been sold, with 7.5 million currently in print.

5. Idaville, Florida, doesn't actually exist, although you can find an Idaville in Indiana, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. So why Idaville? Sobol has never said for sure, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that his mother was called Ida. I think Encyclopedia Brown would agree.

6. Usually, Sobol stumps readers. But on at least one occasion, readers stumped him. In 1990, some students wrote to Sobol about a story that involving a dishonest kid sneaking a hard-boiled egg into a carton for an egg-spinning contest. But the way the story was written made it seem that inexplicably, the kid would have hidden his hard-boiled egg in the carton before it was ever purchased from the grocery store. Sobol picked up the story and reread it for the first time since it had been published 30 years prior and realized the students were right. He corrected it and newer editions make more sense.

7. Topless Robot ranked the top 10 most impossible-to-solve EB mysteries. Check them out and see if you agree. Coming in at #1? The Case of the Kidnapped Pigs from Encyclopedia Brown Saves the Day.

8. E.B. made it to HBO in 1989, but sadly, he didn't last long. It was a live-action series with 30-minute episodes, but our detective couldn't solve the Case of the Low Ratings and the show was canceled after just 10 shows.

9. Did you guys know Encyclopedia Brown was found dead behind a dumpster in Idaville several years ago? He was badly beaten and nearly decapitated. Bugs Meany, of course, was suspected.

10. We might see an Encyclopedia Brown movie one of these days, but probably not while Donald Sobol is still alive. Producer Howard Deutsch bought the movie rights to the series in 1979, but Sobol contested it. It was settled out of court and apparently the results are confidential, but Sobol has said that although Deutsch still technically owns the movie rights, the rights will revert back to the author after a certain period of time. Deutsch has publicly disagreed with this statement, but maybe that's why he's trying to unload the movie now. A few years ago, Deutsch and Ridley Scott were shopping the rights and merchandising options around Hollywood. Nothing has been determined yet, but we might see Leroy in action on the big screen yet.

And a bonus: Cracked.com has a pretty funny Encyclopedia Brown flow chart to refer to in case you're ever stumped on a mystery of your own.

Did you have a favorite Encyclopedia Brown mystery? Ever come across one that you just could not figure out without reading the solution?

What other books has Stacy covered? Find out here.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
iStock
Animals
arrow
Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image
iStock

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]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES