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15 Classic Children's Books That Started as Bedtime Stories

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Before these stories ended up on your kid's shelf, they were told to children tucked in bed.

1. Mrs. Piggle Wiggle by Betty MacDonald

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Before she tried her hand at children’s books, Betty MacDonald already had a non-fiction book under her belt: The Egg and I, a memoir about her life as the wife of a chicken farmer in Washington state. After its success, she decided to put pen to paper to record some of the bedtime stories she used to tell her two daughters. The result was the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series.

2. Babar by Jean de Brunhoff


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In 1930, Mathieu de Brunhoff told his mother he wasn’t feeling well. To help him feel better, Cecile de Brunhoff told little Mathieu and his brother a story about an orphaned elephant visiting Paris. Excited about the tale, the boys repeated it to their book illustrator father the next day, who thought the story had legs as a children’s book. Although it was slated to be published in 1931 with a byline for both Jean and Cecile, Cecile declined to take any credit, saying her role in creating the classic character was negligible.

3. Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne

Christopher Robin isn’t just the fictional guardian of the famous honey-loving bear. The Winnie-the-Pooh series was unofficially created as a set of bedtime stories Christopher Robin Milne’s father based on some of his son’s toys—a chubby bear, a donkey, a tiger, a kangaroo, and a piglet.

4. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

It was C.S. Lewis who originally encouraged Tolkien to adapt the fantastical bedtime stories he told his children into a real book. After The Hobbit was completed, the publisher asked for a sequel, which inspired Tolkien to spend more than a decade writing The Lord of the Rings.

5. Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Riordan, already a successful author, created his Percy Jackson character when his son asked for some bedtime stories about Greek mythology. After he ran through all of the standard gods and heroes, Riordan invented Jackson. Because his son had recently been diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia, the author gave these traits to his hero as well.

6. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car by Ian Fleming

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In 1962, James Bond author Ian Fleming was recovering from a heart attack. During this down time, he decided to write a short story about a flying car for his 10-year-old son, Caspar. Sadly, Fleming never saw the story turn into the huge hit it eventually became not only in bookstores, but also on stage and screen. The author died of a second heart attack two years later, on Caspar’s birthday. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car came out just two months later.

7. Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Grahame began The Wind in the Willows as a bedtime story for his young son, Alastair, which he later continued over a series of letters while Alastair was away at boarding school. But this may not be as charming as it sounds—some historians suggest that Grahame hid behind the stories in order to avoid dealing with his son’s emotional issues. For example, after Alastair begged his parents to allow him to visit for his birthday, Kenneth wrote, “I wish we could have all been together, but we shall meet again soon and then we shall have treats. Have you heard about the Toad? He was never taken prisoner by brigands at all. It was all a low trick of his...”

While attending Oxford in 1920, Alastair committed suicide by lying down on nearby train tracks and letting an oncoming train decapitate him.

8. Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

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Pippi Longstocking and her famous plaits were born when Astrid Lindgren’s daughter Karin was bedridden due to an illness. “Tell me a story about Pippi Longstocking,” Karin told her mother, pulling a funny name out of thin air. “Since the name was remarkable, it had to be a remarkable girl,” Lindgren later said. Her own bed rest due to a sprained ankle inspired Lindgren to put the story down on paper in 1944, and Pippi was published in 1945.

9. Thomas the Tank Engine by Wilbert Awdry

In 1917, Wilbert Awdry sat in bed, listening to steam engines “talking” to each other on the nearby Great Western Railway. Wilbert grew up, got married, and had a son. In 1943, when Christopher Awdry was stuck in bed with the measles, Wilbert remembered the trains from his childhood and created stories about talking trains named Edward, Gordon, and Henry. The stories got more and more detailed, later expanding to include a train named Thomas that young Christopher had gotten for Christmas. Thomas the Tank Engine was published the following year.

10. The BFG by Roald Dahl

Not only did Roald Dahl tell two of his daughters a bedtime story featuring his famous BFG, he also acted the part. After telling them stories of the big, friendly giant who blew happy dreams into bedroom windows, Dahl would climb a ladder outside of their bedroom and use a bamboo cane to “blow” dreams through the window himself. The girls were too old to believe that the giant from the stories was real, but neither of them wanted to tell their father that. “He seemed to me, even then, to have a vulnerable core. So I said nothing,” his daughter Ophelia once said.

11. Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

Kipling’s famous series of stories, including “How the Whale Got His Throat” and “How the Camel Got His Hump,” originally began as bedtime stories to Kipling’s daughter. He called them the “Just-So Stories” because his daughter required the stories to be repeated using exactly the same words and rhythm every night—“just so.”

12. The Iron Man: A Children’s Story in Five Nights by Ted Hughes

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Hughes said he “just wrote it out” as he told this series of bedtime stories to his children. It was later adapted into the animated movie The Iron Giant.

13. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Though not quite a bedtime story, exactly, Alice’s adventures began when Charles Dodgson took 10-year-old Alice Liddell and her sisters on a boat ride up the Thames. To keep the girls entertained, he told a story about a girl named Alice who fell down a rabbit hole into a strange and magical place called Wonderland. The real Alice was enthralled with the tale and asked Dodgson to write it down. It was published three years later, in 1865, under Dodgson’s pen name, Lewis Carroll.

14. Mother Goose in Prose/The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Thanks to the urging of his mother-in-law, Dorothy Gage, Baum jotted down some of the stories he told his kids at night. Among them was “The Little Bun Rabbit," later published in Mother Goose in Prose, in which a girl named Dorothy discovers she can talk to animals. In later collections, he changed her name to “Doris” to avoid confusion with Dorothy from Kansas. It’s said that many elements of Baum’s Oz stories also had their origins as bedtime stories.

15. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

In 1893, Beatrix Potter wrote a story for Noel Moore, the young son of her former governess. Moore was bedridden with an illness, and Potter thought the illustrations and accompanying story would help cheer him up.

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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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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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