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10 Things You Should Know About Ray Bradbury

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For such a visionary futurist whose predictions for the future often came true, Ray Bradbury was rather old-fashioned in many ways. August 22nd would have been his 92nd birthday; check out a few fascinating facts about the literary genius. 

1. Most teenagers get a first job sacking groceries or slinging burgers. At the age of 14, Ray Bradbury got himself a job writing for George Burns and Gracie Allen’s radio show.

“I went down on Figueroa Street in front of the Figueroa Playhouse,” Bradbury said. “I saw George Burns outside the front of the theater. I went up to him and said, ‘Mr. Burns, you got your broadcast tonight don’t you?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘You don’t have an audience in there do you?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Will you take me in and let me be your audience?’ So he took me in and put me in the front row, and the curtain went up, and I was in the audience for Burns and Allen. I went every Wednesday for the broadcast and then I wrote shows and gave them to George Burns. They only used one—but they did use it, it was for the end of the show.”

2. At the age of 22, Bradbury finally summoned up the courage to ask a girl out for the first time ever. She was a bookstore clerk named Maggie, who thought he was stealing from the bookstore because he had a long trench coat on. They went out for coffee, which turned into cocktails, which turned into dinner, which turned into marriage, which turned into 56 anniversaries and four children. She was the only girl Bradbury ever dated. Maggie held down a full-time job while Ray stayed at home and wrote, something that was virtually unheard of in the 1940s.

3. Not only did Bradbury never get a driver’s license, he didn’t believe in cars for anyone. His own personal aversion came from seeing a fatal car accident when he was just 16. In 1996, he told Playboy, “I saw six people die horribly in an accident. I walked home holding on to walls and trees. It took me months to begin to function again. So I don't drive. But whether I drive or not is irrelevant. The automobile is the most dangerous weapon in our society—cars kill more than wars do.”

4. Despite his writings about all things futuristic, Bradbury loathed computers. “We are being flimflammed by Bill Gates and his partners,” he told Playboy in 1996. “Look at Windows '95. That's a lot of flimflam, you know.” He also stated that computers were nothing more than typewriters to him, and he certainly didn’t need another one of those. He also called the Internet “old-fashioned": “They type a question to you. You type an answer back. That’s thirty years ago. Why not do it on the telephone, which is immediate? Why not do it on TV, which is immediate? Why are they so excited with something that is so backward?”

5. George Burns' isn’t the only famous eye Bradbury caught. In 1947, an editor at Mademoiselle read Bradbury’s short story, “Homecoming,” a story about the only human boy in a family of supernatural beings. The editor decided to run the piece, and Bradbury won a place in the O. Henry Prize Stories for one of the best short stories of 1947. That young editor who helped Bradbury out by grabbing his story out of the unsolicited materials pile? Truman Capote.

6. It took Bradbury just nine days to write Fahrenheit 451, and he did it in the basement of the UCLA library on a rented typewriter. The title of his classic novel, by the way, comes from the temperature at which paper burns without being exposed to flame.

7. Though he wrote Fahrenheit 451 at UCLA, he didn’t attend school there, and, in fact, he didn’t believe in college. “I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money,” Bradbury said. “When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

8. Not only was Bradbury good friends with Walt Disney (and even urged him to run for mayor of Los Angeles), he helped contribute to the Spaceship Earth ride at Epcot, submitting a story treatment that they built the ride around.

Disney Parks

He was a big fan of the Disney parks, saying, “Everyone in the world will come to these gates. Why? Because they want to look at the world of the future. They want to see how to make better human beings. That’s what the whole thing is about. The cynics are already here and they’re terrifying one another. What Disney is doing is showing the world that there are alternative ways to do things that can make us all happy. If we can borrow some of the concepts of Disneyland and Disney World and Epcot, then indeed the world can be a better place.”

9. He once said that when he died, he planned to have his ashes placed in a Campbell’s Tomato Soup can and then planted on Mars. Then he decided that he wanted to have a place his fans could visit, and thought he’d design his own gravestone that included the names of his books. As a final touch, a sign at his gravesite would say Place dandelions here, “as a tribute to Dandelion Wine, because so many people love it.” In the end, he ended up going with something a whole lot simpler—a plain headstone bearing his name and “Author of Fahrenheit 451.” Go take him some dandelions the next time you’re in L.A.—he’s buried at Westwood Memorial Park.

10. Perhaps a more fitting memorial is the one NASA gave him when they landed a rover on Mars a few months after Bradbury’s death in 2012: They named the site where Mars Curiosity touched down "Bradbury Landing."

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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