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11 Reasons Agatha Christie Was as Interesting as Her Characters

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From MI5 investigations to going missing for 11 days, Agatha Christie led a life that was every bit as interesting as her novels.

1. She started writing mystery novels after her older sister told her she couldn’tthe plots were just too complicated and she didn’t think Agatha was capable of weaving them together.

2. Christie liked to dream up plot ideas while soaking in her large Victorian bath, munching on apples. She stopped the habit when she became dissatisfied with the baths available to her. “Nowadays they don’t build baths like that. I’ve rather given up the practice.”

3. In reference to how she was able to churn out so many books, Christie once called herself “a sausage machine, a perfect sausage machine.” For many years she was on a tight schedule of two books per year, including one that was always released right before the holiday season, which was marketed as “Christie for Christmas.”

4. Christie helped resolve a crime after her death. A toddler was dying from some sort of wasting disease that no one could seem to identify, until one of her nurses recalled The Pale Horse, the Christie novel she was reading. The Christie character was a victim of thallic poisoning and suffered from many of the same symptoms as the dying tot. In a last-ditch effort to figure out what was going on, the nurse had the patient’s thallium levels tested. They were more than 10 times the normal amount. After treatment, the girl made a full recovery. It was later determined that pesticides containing the deadly substance were regularly used around her home.

5. In a plot twist worthy of her own novels, Christie disappeared for 11 days in 1926.

Her mother had recently died, and on top of that, her husband was cheating on her quite blatantly. On December 3, 1926, Agatha kissed her daughter goodnight, then promptly got in her car and left. Her abandoned vehicle was found a few miles away, but the writer herself had completely vanished. Lakes were dredged, 15,000 volunteers combed the area, and Archie Christie’s phone was tapped. Those who thought Archie was guilty of foul play were surprised when Agatha was located safe and sound a week and a half later, holed up at a hotel and spa in Harrogate, England—but the mystery wasn’t over. She never said why she disappeared, leading to wild speculation. Did she have amnesia resulting from a car crash? Was it a publicity stunt for her next book? Was she trying to frame her philandering husband for murder? We’ll never know, because Agatha never said. It’s worth noting, though, that Christie checked into the hotel under the surname “Neele”—the last name of her husband’s lover.

6. Before things went south for Agatha and Archie, they were some of the first British people to ever try surfing.

Image courtesy of Museum of British Surfing/SWNS.com

Already a bodyboarder, Agatha was excited to try the new sport when she and Archie visited Hawaii in 1922. “I learned to become expert, or at any rate expert from the European point of view—the moment of complete triumph on the day that I kept my balance and came right into shore standing upright on my board!” she wrote in her autobiography. She was also delighted by her purchase of ''a wonderful, skimpy emerald green wool bathing dress, which was the joy of my life, and in which I thought I looked remarkably well!''

A researcher from the Museum of British Surfing says that only one other Brit seems to have taken up surfing before the Christies: Prince Edward.

7. In addition to 66 novels and 15 short story collections, Christie also wrote six romance novels under the name Mary Westmacott. It wasn’t her only pseudonym: she originally submitted her work to editors under the name “Monosyllaba.”

8. One of Christie’s books hit a little too close to the truth during WWII—so close, in fact, that MI5 launched an investigation. In her novel N or M, a character named Major Bletchley claims he knows critical British wartime secrets. It just so happened that Christie’s good friend Dilly Knox was a well-known codebreaker at Bletchley Park, so insiders at MI5 wondered if the wartime secrets known by the fictional character were actually real details that Knox had spilled. Knox denied that he had told Christie anything, but MI5 wasn’t convinced. If the author didn’t know anything, why had she given that specific character a name based on that location? Knox agreed to ask her, and it seems MI5 was satisfied by her answer: “Bletchley? My dear, I was stuck there on my way by train from Oxford to London and took revenge by giving the name to one of my least lovable characters."

9. Christie’s famous Belgian detective character Hercule Poirot is the only fictional character to receive an obituary in the New York Times.

10. Another of her famous characters, spinster detective Miss Marple, was based, in part, on her step-grandmother and “some of my step-grandmother's Ealing cronies—old ladies whom I have met in so many villages where I have gone to stay as a girl." You can hear snippets of her talking about it here—some of the only known recordings of Christie’s voice. And she sounds pretty much exactly what you’d expect her to sound like.

11. Christie's second husband, Max Mallowan, was a renowned British archaeologist. Christie loved to accompany him on digs and serve as his assistant, cleaning objects, matching shards of pottery, and helping to catalog items. She once remarked to Mallowan that she wished she had taken up archaeology as a girl so she would have been more knowledgeable on the subject as an adult. He responded, "Don't you realize that at this moment you know more about prehistoric pottery than any woman in England?"

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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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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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