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At the Libraries: Librarian Hobbies

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Every Wednesday, Miss Kathleen provides links to a variety of stories about libraries, authors, and books. If there's something fun going on in your local library, leave us a comment!

The latest in unnecessary, likely-to-be-ruinous children's adaptations: Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. This pro-green film will be voiced by Danny DeVito, who doesn't exactly scream "child-friendly" to me.
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We librarians can be a weird bunch, it's true. But this is really strange: One librarian's hobby just got him into the Guinness Book of World Records. The hobby? Collecting belly button lint. He must be so ... proud?
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Of course, most librarians have more, um, mainstream, hobbies. It may come as no surprise that our favorite hobby is recreational reading -- and we don't do it at work, even though I know you all think we do! Check out some other librarian hobbies.
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Another hobby that didn't make the list is agonizing over whether teens are reading more, less, or the same, in this crazy digital world of ours. A new finding shows -- surprise! -- they are still reading, just reading differently.

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Speaking of Dr. Seuss, here's a great tee for all you graphic design-lovers out there: Green Eggs and Ham, the visual guide. Check it out:

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Dr. Seuss is part of our national consciousness because we all read him as kids, and now our kids are reading him, too. The books we read as children have a huge hold on our memories, and here's a documentary to tap into that: The Library of the Early Mind. There's a screening in NYC soon -- wish I could go! I don't think it's available on Netflix...
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Eva Ibbotson was a wonderful children's writer who recently died. She's often credited as presaging Harry Potter, as she wrote a lot about magic and fantasy (although my favorite of hers is the historical fiction work Journey to the River Sea -- so good.) Her worked earned her a New York Times obit, which concluded with this fascinating family detail about her father, who researched artificial insemination: "Because of her father’s dedication to his work ... Ms. Ibbotson is also survived by an additional raft of half-siblings whose precise number is unknown."
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And, speaking of Harry Potter, his lasting legacy might not be 700+ page fantasy books for children, but the introduction of quidditch as a legitimate sport. There are already several college teams, so why shouldn't it be an NCAA sport? And, maybe someday, in the Olympics? Have any of you ever played real-life quidditch? Please let me know!
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Here's a serious work miscommunication: a librarian wants to teach ESL on her days off; the city council won't allow it. She resigns and is escorted out by police. Read all about it.
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That's an extreme case, but what's it really like to work in the public library? Here's a nice little sample of questions at the reference desk from a great library blog, Love the Liberry. Sounds like a typical day to me!

If you follow a great library blog, site, or twitterer, please share it with me! Send your tips to atthelibraries@gmail.com or leave me a comment. See previous installments of At the Libraries here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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]

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