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At the Libraries: Little Libraries Abound

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Each week Miss Kathleen provides links to a variety of stories about libraries, authors, and books. If there’s something noteworthy going on in your local library, leave us a comment!

Little libraries abound this month! Here is one in a phone booth in New York. I didn't even know they still had phone booths!
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And USA Today has a nice round-up of various other "little libraries." A return to simpler times, when we all made our own pickles? Perhaps.

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What a brilliant idea: How would other artists recreate seminal Dr. Seuss works? That's what they call the Re-Seussification Project over on that great blog, Fuse #8. Good stuff!
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By the way, have you guys noticed how often I link to Fuse #8's blog? That's because it is awesome!
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Okay, back to business! And by business, of course I mean fun. How does a sitcom set in a library sound? Uh huh, you know it's gotta be awesome, and it's finally available on Hulu! I tried to download it years ago and it never worked, but now it is so easy to watch the hilarity unfold. Do yourself a favor and watch, guys.
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Little libraries may be hot, but big libraries are still pretty impressive, too. Like, for example, this one in Norway. Gotta see it to believe it!

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Do you love books? Do you love to eat? Me, too! So clearly, the Edible Book Festival is an event for us. Sounds like something we could recreate right here on mental_floss, doncha think? If you make something, send me a picture too, okay? Thanks! And thanks once again to Fuse #8 for the link!
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Or, if you live in Illinois, you can go to your very own! (Thanks, Jason!)
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E-books vs. paper books, it's so hard to choose! But one thing that e-books have over paper books is how easy sharing can be, especially with this clever site a reader tipped me off to (thanks, Abe!): Readmill. Highlight favorite passages, make friends, create a list of books to read -- it's all there!
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Children's books are great, of course, but did you know they can also be pretty valuable? Yup yup, we've got a wistful window-shopper oohing and ahhing over a $24,000 The Cat in the Hat!
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It's a new month, which means that it's time to unveil our latest Blog of the Month! If you've been reading closely this week, you might be able to guess which blog gets the honor... that's right, it's a Fuse #8 Production! Ladies and gentlemen, this blog has been around since back in the day, I am telling you -- 2006 at least, and its NYPL librarian-owner knows her children's lit, oh yes she does, and she always has the best scoops. Take a gander and see for yourself!
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That'll do it for me -- see you guys next week! As always, email me with your library and literary tidbits and I'll do my best to highlight them!

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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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