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At the Libraries: Your Weekly Round-Up

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Every Wednesday, Miss Kathleen provides links to a variety of things happening at libraries across the country. If there's something fun going on in your local library this week, leave us a comment!

The Main Library of the Richland County (SC) Public Library in Columbia has a gorgeous Where the Wild Things Are mural that you can see here. There is also a swanky-sounding event coming up to support the library. Wine, music, and food? In a library? I'm sold.
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After hearing about a couple from Denton, TX, who visited the mental_floss retail store outside Cleveland, I looked up their library. The Denton Public Library is offering some great programs, including a Writers Workshop this Saturday.

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Maybe you want to go to a writers group, but you don't live in Texas. If you live in the mid-Hudson region of New York, then you are in luck! The Poughkeepsie Public Library has its own group, the Hudson Valley Wordsmiths, and they meet on Sunday.
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Jay Leno learned not to mess with librarians when he tried out this lame joke on his show recently (around the 3-minute mark). But he got what he deserved, as you can see. Mess with bull, you get the horns!
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Or maybe it's the librarians who are the problem. Miss Manners has a letter from a library patron who can no longer put up with an invasive librarian. What can a patron do?
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One of my favorite contemporary picture books authors is Mo Willems, and he has a great blog. It has all the usual sections -- upcoming events, new books, and so on. But the best part is that he posts the fan mail he gets from kids making their own pigeon books!
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Want to really unleash your family's creativity like Mo? Cover your dining room walls with chalkboards!


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At my library, if you sign up for email rather than phone notification, you get a courtesy email a few days before your books are due. Pretty handy. But if your library doesn't offer that service, head on over to Library Elf and they will be glad to assist you.
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Did you know that "The secret of stress management is in your breath"? Me either, but I guess it makes sense. You can learn about all that and more -- start eliminating stress at the Yoga of Breath workshop at the Salt Lake City Public Library.
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If you're in Boston on Friday, you can get a free tour of local architecture near the Boston Public Library -- pretty cool!
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Patty Smith was recently at the New York Public Library reading from her new book, Just Kids, and staff there created a great video, edited down to about 4 minutes. It's pretty awesome and I highly recommend watching
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Thanks for all your comments and emails -- I've been hearing from lots of different cities and states. a href="mailto:atthelibraries@gmail.com">Keep them coming!

See previous installments of At the Libraries here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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