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Pizza Hut

Pizza for Reading: Pizza Hut's Book It!

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Pizza Hut

I remember Book It! as a clever way to get kids and parents into Pizza Hut franchises—with some reading thrown in. When the program launched in my elementary school in 1984, the deal was simple: read ten books (a goal set by my teacher), get a coupon for a free one-topping Personal Pan Pizza. To a young nerd, this was exciting stuff; I was going to read the ten books anyway, so the pizza was just a nice bonus. In addition to individual rewards, there was the lure of a class-wide pizza party if everyone met their reading goals...but there were always holdouts in my class who didn't manage to read their fair share. The promised pizza party finally happened in fifth grade, and my class of twenty descended on our local Pizza Hut like a pack of starving wolves. (We had just read Julie of the Wolves, if I recall correctly.) This qualifies me as a member of the Book It! Alumni, oddly enough.

When I was a kid, the Book It! goals were concrete and simple—measured in my class by a simple "number of books" count, and involving the student handing in a brief summary of the books read. Because the goals were so simple, they were highly exploitable. I did two naughty things to game the system: I counted collections of Garfield cartoons as "books," and on occasion I threw in a few books I'd read in prior years in order to hit the magic ten-book number required for another pizza. We were limited to one pizza a month, but when "pizza day" came around, I was always ready.

Today, while it's still possible for a teacher to set by-the-book goals, the program is more focused on time spent reading, as well as time spent reading aloud. For example, for a fifth-grader, Book It! recommends spending 300 minutes per month reading. For first-graders, the program recommends 20 minutes, 5 nights a week—which, assuming a four-week month, is 400 minutes, thus 33% more than the amount suggested for fifth-graders.

Book It! was so popular that in 1989, Barbara Bush hosted a "Reading is Fundamental" pizza party at the White House...featuring Pizza Hut pizza. The program is also available to homeschoolers (author's note—thanks to commenters for pointing this out!).

Studies and Controversy

The Book It! program was the subject of a 1999 study and scholarly paper. Titled "Effects of extrinsic reinforcement for reading during childhood on reported reading habits of college students" (Psychological Record, 1999, by Flora, S. R., & Flora, D. B.; full text), the paper characterized pizza as an "extrinsic reward" for reading, and analyzed survey data collected from college students, trying to determine how the pizza rewards (and other extrinsic rewards like cash payments) affected students' reading behavior. Here's a snippet from the paper (emphasis added):

The answers to the direct questions about Book It! and being paid to read suggested strong beneficial effects of these procedures. Specifically, of the people who reported being in the Book It! program none indicated that it decreased reading. Conversely, 27 responded that it had no effect, and 80 (74.8% of those answering the item) indicated that the Book It! program increased reading amount.

Eight people did report that participating in Book It! decreased their enjoyment of reading. However, 30 people (28%) reported that Book It! increased their enjoyment of reading and 68 (64%) reported Book It! had no effect on enjoyment.

Fifty three people (49.5%) reported that the Book It! program helped them learn how to read. Fifty three people reported that Book It! had no effect on their learning to read. Only one person reported that Book It! slowed them in learning to read. ...

Discussion

The current study found no reliable effect of either participating in the Book It! reading program or of being rewarded with money for reading as children on either intrinsic motivation for reading, or on the self-reported amount of reading per week of college students. Direct questions about the effects of Book It! and/or of being paid to read found the procedures to be beneficial or at worst benign. Indeed, the results suggest that when a child participates in Book It! or is rewarded for reading with money the child will increase the amount read, enjoyment of reading may increase, and if they do not read fluently, then the programs may help the child to learn to read.

The study was performed on college students, so it may not be indicative of the broader reading population (for example, what would happen if non-college students were polled?). But still, the study is an interesting read, including the line: "Three responses indicated cheating in the Book It! program." Thank you, scholars, for proving I wasn't the only one.

Book It! has been criticized for combining marketing, high-fat food, and literacy. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) issued a press release in 2007, including the following:

Reaching 22 million school children in 900,000 classrooms each year, BOOK IT! is one of corporate America’s most insidious school-based brand promotions. The annual BOOK IT! Beginners program – which allows Pizza Hut to target preschools – begins next week

“BOOK IT! epitomizes everything that’s wrong with corporate-sponsored programs in school,” said Dr. [Susan] Linn, author of Consuming Kids. “In the name of education, it promotes junk food consumption to a captive audience of children; turns teachers into Pizza Hut promoters; and undermines parents by positioning family visits to Pizza Hut as an integral component of raising literate children.”

BOOK IT! rewards students with certificates for a free Pizza Hut personal pizza when they reach certain reading goals. A Pizza Hut six-inch personal pan pizza has 630 calories and 27 grams of fat. With a topping, it can have as many as 770 calories and 39 grams of fat. For children ages 3-5, a Pizza Hut personal pizza can contain more than half of their daily caloric requirement, as well as their entire fat requirement.

Despite the CCFC's campaign, the Book It! program endures, and even has fans including poets and guys who wear shirts, not to mention nearly 15,000 people on Facebook. Although the published numbers are all over the place, the program currently reaches at least 10 million students annually, and is over 25 years old. That's a lotta free pizza, folks.

A Video History

Book It! is now more than 30 years old. Here's a refresher:

Did You Participate in Book It!?

What do you think about the Book It! program? Do you love it, hate it, or have mixed feelings? Share your thoughts and memories in the comments. For the record, I have no affiliation with Book It! or Pizza Hut, aside from participating in the program in grade school.

(Note: A version of this story first ran on September 28, 2012.)

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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