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9 Books to Drop Everything and Read

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If you’re a passionate reader, you’re always on the hunt for the next book that will totally engross you. We’ve pinpointed some that are worth the old drop-everything-and-read treatment.

1) The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant

After he’d won the Civil War and spent two terms in the White House, Grant was strapped for cash. His pal Mark Twain convinced the retired general to pen his memoirs, which Twain then published. Just how good was the finished product? Twain called it “a great, unique and unapproachable literary masterpiece.”

2) The Moonstone  by Wilkie Collins

Nothing is quite as gripping as a good mystery novel, and Collins’ masterpiece, first published in 1868, is sometimes credited as the very first detective novel. If you like a good whodunit, it’s worth the effort to find out where the genre got its start.

3) The Amateur Cracksman  by E.W. Hornung

Hornung enjoyed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories so much that in the 1890s he set out to craft his own take on the brilliant investigator. Hornung got creative, though. Instead of creating his own detective, he dreamed up A.J. Raffles, an anti-Holmes who made his living as a “gentleman thief” and burglar. The resulting stories are thrilling and often hilarious.

4) Tom Sawyer, Detective  by Mark Twain

Twain would know a little something about literary masterpieces. He’d also know something about baffling sequels. Published in 1896, Tom Sawyer, Detective details the title character’s efforts to solve a murder in a burlesque house. How can you not drop everything to read that?

5) The Wealth of Nations  by Adam Smith

For a book published in 1776, Adam Smith’s revolutionary The Wealth of Nations is a surprisingly engaging and approachable read. It can get a little technical in parts, but a solid read will arm you with more economics knowledge than you ever thought you’d have.

6) Pride and Prejudice  by Jane Austen

If you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice, what are you doing reading on the Web? Pride and Prejudice is funny, beautifully written, and indispensable. The only downside is that since writing wasn’t considered an honorable vocation for a woman of Austen’s class, she couldn’t take credit for the novel when it came out. The title page reads “By the author Sense and Sensibility.” That book, in turn, only reveals that it was written “By a lady.”

7) Jane Eyre  by Charlotte Bronte

Like Austen, the brilliant Bronte sisters disguised their identities. Before Charlotte Bronte broke out with her incredible novel Jane Eyre, the three sisters adopted the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. In 1846, the Brontes self-published a collection of poetry under these pseudonyms. How did the three literary titans’ debut fare? They sold a whopping two copies. Things took a positive turn for Charlotte the following year when, still writing as Currer Bell, she found a publisher for Jane Eyre.

8) One Thousand and One Nights

Sure, you probably know Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad. But there are still hundreds of classic Middle Eastern folk tales waiting for you in this volume. How can you read a story title like “The Fakir and His Jar of Butter” and not be just a little intrigued?

9) Walden  by Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau’s beautiful account of living in New England seclusion is gripping for its simplicity, but it wasn’t easy to write. Thoreau needed seven years to write and edit the 18 essays that he wrote while living in a cabin on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s land for two years. It’s hard to blame Thoreau for heading to the wilderness; his other option was sticking with the family pencil-making business.

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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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