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7 Children's Books Written in Response to Other Books

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Some authors write books because they have a way with words. Other people write books because they have a story they want to share with the world. And a select group of individuals write books mostly to spite the author of another book. These books were written in response to another book, some angrily and some lovingly (mostly).

1. Truax

In case you’re not familiar with The Lorax (1971), it’s widely recognized as Dr. Seuss’ take on environmentalism. The Lorax “speaks for the trees,” and let’s just say that the trees aren’t exactly thrilled with the way things have been going. Many of them have been chopped down to make Thneeds, strange little garments that everyone needs. Though many people lauded Seuss and his Lorax for being outspoken about the wanton destruction of natural resources, at least one group of people didn’t appreciate the sentiment: the logging industry.

To defend themselves against the unjust Lorax, the timber industry provided funding to Terri Birkett, a member of the National Wood Flooring Association, to write a rebuttal book. In it, an irrational, irate “protector of trees” named Guardbark berates a lumberjack who patiently explains that he replaces the trees he cuts down, that they’ve set land aside to serve as Nature Preserves, and that no one really cares about some of the species that go extinct because of logging anyway. “How far will we go? How much will we pay? To keep a few minnows from dying away?” the lumberjack asks. If you want to know more about the logging industry’s point of view, you can read Truax in its entirety here.

2. The Cat in the Hat

Speaking of Dr. Seuss, one of the reasons he wrote was in response to the mind-numbing dullness of Dick and Jane and their mundane lives that consisted mostly of watching Spot run. The director of the education division at Houghton Mifflin challenged Seuss to come up with a story children would actually want to read using some of the same basic words used in Dick and Jane. “At first I thought it was impossible and ridiculous,” Seuss later said. “I was about to get out of the whole thing; then decided to look at the list one more time and to use the first two words that rhymed as the title of the book - cat and hat were the ones my eyes lighted on.”

Years later, Dr. Seuss said, “I have great pride in taking Dick and Jane out of most school libraries. That is my greatest satisfaction.”

3. Little Eva: the Flower of the South

After Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, outraged slave owners produced a number of works called “Anti-Tom literature.” Very few of them were targeted at kids, though, which is where Little Eva stands out from the pack. In Philip J. Cozan’s Little Eva, a young girl teaches the child slaves on her father’s plantation how to read and write. When the slaves are set free, they opt to stay on the plantation with Little Eva because she was so kind and good to them.

4. Goodnight iPad

An anonymous author going by the name Ann Droyd wrote this updated version of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, perhaps as commentary about how plugged in we are. Speaking of which, you can watch Goodnight, iPad on YouTube:

5. Pat the Husband

We’ve probably all read the original Pat the Bunny at some point in our lives. Let me jog your memory: “Judy can pat the bunny. Now YOU pat the bunny. Judy can play peek-a-boo with Paul. Now YOU play peek-a-boo with Paul.” In this parody by Kate Merrow Nelligan, Paul and Judy are married, and maybe not 100% happily. “Paul is a confident man. No one needs to tell Paul who he is, or where he is going. Except when he is lost. Can you help Paul ask for directions?”

6. The His Dark Materials trilogy

Though Pullman has never directly come out and said so, many critics and scholars think that his young adult books (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) were written in response to the Christian themes in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia.

“I hate the Narnia books, and I hate them with a deep and bitter passion, with their view of childhood as a golden age from which sexuality and adulthood are a falling-away,” Pullman once said. “I realized that what [Lewis] was up to was propaganda in the cause of the religion he believed in.”

7. Go the F*** to Sleep

The short children’s book, which is really not a children’s book at all, spoofs the saccharine bedtime stories a lot of us heard as youngsters (and/or read to our kids now). The ebook was funny all on its own, but when Samuel L. Jackson was tapped to read the audio version, Go the F*** to Sleep reached a whole new level of fame. What you may not know is that the wickedly funny book is a spoof of a very specific bedtime read, not just the overall genre. The inspiration, It’s Time to Sleep, My Love, by Eric Metaxas, includes lines like, “The songbirds sing in trees above, ‘It’s time to sleep, my love, my love.’”

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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