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The Quick 10: Pippi Longstocking

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I have a special place in my heart for Pippi Longstocking "“ when I was in about first grade, my mom brought a ball of white fluff home that been abandoned at her workplace and told me I could name our new cat, I promptly called her Pippi. So, for the last book in our children's lit Quick 10 series, I had to go with Astrid Lindgren's freckle-faced redhaired girl (I'm quoting the theme song in hopes that all of you join me in having it stuck in your head).

1. According to Pippi herself, her full name is Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim's Daughter Longstocking (in Swedish, it's Pippilotta Viktualia Rullgardina Krusmynta Efraimsdotter LÃ¥ngstrump).
2. Like Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, the character of Pippi was originally just a bedtime story. Astrid Lindgren made up the precocious redhead to entertain her daughter, Karin, who was very ill with pneumonia and was totally bedridden. In fact, it was Karin who named the character Pippi.
3. It was when Astrid was laid up a few years later, though, that Pippi was actually recorded on paper. Astrid fell on some ice and hurt her ankle, which left her relatively immobile. This time, it was herself she needed to entertain. She remembered the stories she made up for Karin and decided to write them down and see if they would go anywhere. They certainly did "“ later that year, she submitted the story in a writing contest where it took second place. She sent it in to another contest the following year, where it won the first place prize of a publishing contract. It was an immediate hit with kids and has been in print ever since.

4. When you were a kid, did you desperately want to visit Pippi's house, Villa Villekulla? You can fulfill that dream"¦ if you're still harboring it, that is. The house that was used for the 1969 T.V. series still stands in the town of Vibble, Gotland Municipality, Sweden. Or you can visit The World of Astrid Lindgren, an amusement park in Vimmerby, Sweden, Lindgren's hometown. You can meet all of the characters she created there, including Miss Longstocking and her crazy house with the tree that grows sockerdricka (lemonade, in the U.S. version).

5. Astrid Lindgren didn't just write for children "“ she truly believed in children's rights and campaigned for them. In 1994, she was honored for her "lifelong dedication to the rights of children."

6. Lindgren wrote all of her first drafts in stenographer's shorthand.

7. Even after she became wealthy from her books "“ one estimate puts her sales in the vicinity of 145 million copies "“ Lindgren continued to live in the apartment in Stockholm where she first told Pippi stories to her daughter.

8. We love Lego creations here on the _floss, of course, so I couldn't pass up a Lego representation of Pippi and her house. It's insanely detailed.
9. No other Swedish author has had their stories translated into as many languages as Lindgren. As of 2010, her works have been translated into 95 languages, from Afrikaans to Zulu.

10. Herr Nilsson, Pippi's pet monkey and accomplice, seems to have a fan base all of his own. There's even a Norwegian pop group named after him. They actually just released a new album called "Long Live Herr Nilsson."

This children's lit book series has been really fun! I hope you've all enjoyed it. We'll definitely have to do it again "“ I know there are a lot of suggestions floating around out there that I didn't get to.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]