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Why Libraries Matter

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It was the spring of 1971, and the public library in Troy, Mich., was finally getting a permanent home. As the grand opening neared, Marguerite Hart—the children’s librarian—dreamed up a way to inspire Troy’s youngsters to come to the new library: she wrote dozens of letters to actors, politicians, and authors from across the globe. Hart asked them to address the children of Troy and speak about the importance of libraries, books, and reading. By the time the library opened, 97 letters had graced her mailbox. Here’s a snapshot of what they had to say.

William White (Professor):

“It really gives someone a bang to discover suddenly that reading books can be fun. Just don’t wait too long to find this out—think of all the hours and days of fun you’ll miss. Go read a book in the library. Now.”

William Broomfield (US Congressman):

“Almost everyone is ignorant about almost everything. Surely there is no denying that. The most brilliant people are only brilliant about one or two matters, and ignorant of everything else. And ignorance is painful and irritating—the enemy of happiness. One of the greatest powers against the forces of ignorance is the public library. It knows no racial or economic boundaries. All who enter are welcome.”

Neil Armstrong (Astronaut):

“Through books you will meet poets and novelists whose creations will fire your imagination. You will meet the great thinkers who will share with you their philosophies, their concepts of the world, of humanity and of creation. You will learn about events that have shaped our history, of deeds both noble and ignoble. All of this knowledge is yours for the taking... Your library is a storehouse for mind and spirit. Use it well.”

David M. Kennedy (Cabinet Secretary):

“Your library is not just a building full of books. It is a gateway to thousands of worlds which you may choose to enter. Any world ever explored by man, or by man’s mind, is there awaiting you in print. The choice is yours.”

Ronald Reagan (California Governor):

“A world without books would be a world without light—without light, man cannot see.”

Dr. Seuss:

Edward Ardizzone (Author):

“What men and women did before makes us what we are now, and what we are now affects the future. To read of men and women of days gone by is to learn something of ourselves. For after all, they are part of us.”

Deane Davis (Vermont Governor):

“Read! It is nourishing, civilizing, worthwhile. Read! It destroys our ignorance and our prejudice. Read! It teaches us to understand our fellowman better and, once we understand this, it will be far easier to love him and work with him in a daily more complex society.”

Robert D. Ray (Iowa Governor):

“Freedom cannot falter where libraries flourish.”

John Burns (Hawaii Governor):

“Be very kind to all the librarians. They are among the wisest people in the world. We could do without governors if we had to, but we could not get along very well without librarians.”
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“A library is like a railroad station or an airport: you sit in a comfortable chair and you are carried swiftly to other lands… Never gab-gab-gab in a library to disturb others. Remember that people in a library may be far away—in Afghanistan or Botswana or walking along the road to Mandalay or high in the sky in a silent swift balloon over the Pyrenees.”

John Berryman (Poet):

“The chief thing is to read as hard as you play, with the same seriousness and a mind wide open…You have a pretty building for your books. Go in, and change your life.”

Clara Jones (Director, Detroit Public Library):

“The person who reads need never be lonely.”

John Gilligan (Ohio Governor):

“A library is a place to visit the past and future, or to experience a non-existent world through the pages of volumes containing the dreams, beliefs, knowledge and skills of an author’s imagination and mind.”

Lisl Weil (Author):

“Books speak, if you listen well, they will make you think and grow tall and strong in feeling and seeing the world around you.”

Joseph Alioto (San Francisco Mayor):

“Books can be your companion on rainy days. They will always be there. And when you want to read, a book will never say, ‘No, I don’t want to.’”

Helen Gurley Brown (Editor in Chief, Cosmopolitan):

James Yaffe (President of Colorado College):

“We cannot live in more than one world; we cannot break through the barrier of our own individuality. We are doomed to be ourselves, when we yearn to be everybody. Man invented books to help him out of this dilemma…Through books we can catapult our imaginations into those worlds that our bodies can never reach. When we read history, we demolish the prison of time and become one with the men of the past… When we read poems or plays or stories, we are drawn into the inner lives, the feelings and thoughts, of other souls we could never have imagined for ourselves. [A library] helps us become more than ourselves.”

Mary Hemingway (Wife of Ernest Hemingway):

“A library is like a roomful of friends, each one with his own story or observations ready and waiting to be discovered.”

William Levitt (Real Estate Developer):

“As time goes on you will realize that books are very good friends. They ask nothing of you, but are ready to give everything. They are never in a hurry, but are always there when you want them. They are never short tempered, but are always ready to entertain you.”

Malcolm Boyd (Author):

“[Reading] is one of the things that transforms existence into life.”

Walter Havighurst (Author, Critic):

“A library is a quiet place. ‘Quiet, please’ reads a sign on the wall, and the books are silent on the shelves. But in the silence there is a murmur of voices waiting to be heard.”

George Romney (US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development):

“Every generation stands on the shoulders of generations that have gone before them…People who read books are wise because they use the tools of other men’s experiences.”

John Chafee (Secretary of the Navy):

“Libraries are wonderful places in which to be lost...Adventure is only an arm’s length away, and new friends are waiting for you between the covers of books.”

Neil Simon (Playwright):

“When I look back on the many pleasures [my library] afforded me, I do not for one instant regret living and growing up in a TV-less society.”

E.B. White (Author):

Mike O’Callaghan (Nevada Governor):

“[A library] is a living place, no matter how inanimate you may think the books themselves are. In those books are the ideas and thoughts of men and women who lived long ago, as well as those of people living today… Remember that libraries need feeding too, since they are living, and that it is far better to add a book to the shelves than deprive others of the opportunity to use it.”

Herbert Zim (Author):

“Bring a friend to the library. Get him to bring a friend, also. A good library is one that is over-worked and over-used.”

Richard Armour (Author):

“I am sixty-four years old, probably as old as your grandparents, but I am still learning. I learn from traveling and talking with people, but mostly I learn from reading books…Books are precious things. Between their covers are facts and ideas and imaginings put into words by the most sensitive and imaginative and creative people who ever lived.”

Kingsley Amis (Author):

“Use your library, remembering that, whatever else you may not have, if you have books, you have everything.”

Check out the complete collection on Troy Public Library’s webpage.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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