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Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Sad Readers

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Sad news, detectives. Donald J. Sobol, the creator of Encyclopedia Brown, passed away on July 11 at the age of 87. Sobol wrote 28 books starring 10-year-old Leroy Brown, with the next one, Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Soccer Scheme, scheduled to come out this fall. In honor of Sobol, here are a few interesting facts about everyone's favorite reasonably priced detective. (25 cents plus expenses!)

1. Encyclopedia Brown isn't based on anyone "“ at least, not really. "He is, perhaps, the boy I wanted to be -- doing the things I wanted to read about but could not find in any book when I was ten," Sobol once said.
2. Looking at Sobol's bibliography, it's actually pretty clear that his interests were just as varied as those of the boy he wrote about. He published more than 65 books, but many of them aren't children's books or even fiction. His nonfiction titles included The First Book of Stocks and Bonds and Lock, Stock and Barrel, a collection of short biographies of men in the Revolutionary War. He also wrote The Wright Brothers of Kitty Hawk, a fictional biography of Orville and Wilbur.

3. Encyclopedia Brown wasn't Sobol's first go at writing mysteries. Just prior to his success in the world of children's books, Sobol wrote "Two Minute Mystery," a syndicated column. He later created the similarly titled Two Minute Mysteries, a series aimed at kids a bit older than the E.B. audience.

4. More than 50 million Encyclopedias have been sold, with 7.5 million currently in print.

5. Idaville, Florida, doesn't actually exist, although you can find an Idaville in Indiana, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. So why Idaville? Sobol never said for sure, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that his mother was called Ida.

6. Usually, Sobol stumps readers. But on at least one occasion, readers stumped him. In 1990, some students wrote to Sobol about a story that involving a dishonest kid sneaking a hard-boiled egg into a carton for an egg-spinning contest. But the way the story was written made it seem that inexplicably, the kid would have hidden his hard-boiled egg in the carton before it was ever purchased from the grocery store. Sobol picked up the story and reread it for the first time since it had been published 30 years prior and realized the students were right. He corrected it and newer editions make more sense.


7. E.B. made it to HBO in 1989, but he didn't last long. It was a live-action series with 30-minute episodes, but our detective couldn't solve The Case of the Low Ratings and the series was canceled after just 10 shows.


8. Topless Robot ranked the top 10 most impossible-to-solve EB mysteries. Check them out and see if you agree. Coming in at #1? The Case of the Kidnapped Pigs from Encyclopedia Brown Saves the Day.

9. Ever found yourself going back through an old Encyclopedia mystery and felt a little bad that you couldn't even solve them as an adult? Don't feel too bad. "I couldn’t solve the mysteries if I didn’t write them," Sobol once admitted. "You know my worst secret."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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