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10 Things You Might Not Know About A Christmas Carol

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Wikimedia Commons

1. Dickens was inspired to write A Christmas Carol in 1843 after he spoke at a charity night to raise money for the Manchester Athenaeum in England—an institution dedicated to "advancement and diffusion of knowledge." The 31-year-old spoke alongside the young Benjamin Disraeli, who would later become prime minister of Great Britain. After their talk, Dickens went on a long nocturnal walk later and had the idea for his "little Christmas book." 

2. He started the story in October 1843 and wrote obsessively for six weeks. As Dickens wrote, he wept, laughed, and wandered around London at night "when all sober folks had gone to bed." He finished the novella at the end of November so it could be published in time for Christmas. A Christmas Carol hit the shops on December 17, 1843, and sold out in three days.

3. Dickens was the first famous writer to give public readings of his work—and his first reading was A Christmas Carol. The reading took place in front of a crowd of 2000 people in the town hall of Birmingham, England, 10 years after the book was published. Dickens opened the reading by saying, “Ladies and gentleman—I have said that I bear an old love towards Birmingham and Birmingham men; let me amend a small omission, and add Birmingham women too. This ring I wear on my finger now is an old Birmingham gift, and if by rubbing it I could raise the spirit that was obedient to Aladdin’s ring, I heartily assure you that my first instruction to that genius on the spot should be to place himself at Birmingham’s disposal in the best of causes. I now have the pleasure of reading to you tonight A Christmas Carol in four staves.”

4. Rather than simply read extracts from his stories, Dickens loved to perform them—so he created a special version of A Christmas Carol for exactly that purpose. He tore the pages out of an original book, and stuck them into a new, large leafed, blank paged book. Then he filleted the text, cutting out descriptive scenes to create a performance script. He added stage directions for himself all over the text. Such an annotated copy is called a prompt copy.

5. There is one extant copy of A Christmas Carol created by Dickens himself and it is owned by the Berg Collection of English and American literature at the New York Public Library (NYPL). I discovered it when researching my book The Secret Museum and wrote about its story.

6. Dickens visited America twice for reading tours. During the second tour—which took place at Christmastime in 1867—he used the prompt copy at the NYPL, once at a Steinway piano hall, and once at a church in Brooklyn. People camped out in the snow to be sure of a ticket. By opening time, the line was a mile long. The second tour earned him £19,000—about £1.4 million in today’s money, and far more than he was earning from the royalties of his books.

7. When he was 32, Mark Twain listened to one of the then-55-year-old Dickens’ New York performances. He described the writer's entrance thus:

Promptly at 8 P.M., unannounced, and without waiting for any stamping or clapping of hands to call him out, a tall, "spry," (if I may say it,) thin-legged old gentleman, gotten up regardless of expense, especially as to shirt-front and diamonds, with a bright red flower in his button-hole, gray beard and moustache, bald head, and with side hair brushed fiercely and tempestuously forward, as if its owner were sweeping down before a gale of wind, the very Dickens came! He did not emerge upon the stage -- that is rather too deliberate a word -- he strode.

Twain’s review was not favourable: “There is no heart,” he said. “No feeling – it is nothing but glittering frostwork.” Bah Humbug!

8. On reading days, Dickens would drink two tablespoons of rum mixed with cream for breakfast, a pint of champagne for tea and, half an hour before he went on stage, he would knock back a sherry with a raw egg beaten into it. During the interval of his reading he would sip beef tea, and at bedtime he’d have a bowl of soup.

9. Just as Dickens’ first public reading was of A Christmas Carol, so was his last. The author had decided to retire from readings because his health was failing, and his final performance took place at St. James’ Hall in Piccadilly on March 15, 1870. His son recorded his last words to the audience: "...from these garish lights I vanish now for evermore, with one heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell."

10. While I was writing The Secret Museum, I kept thinking how wonderful it would be to bring some treasures in the book back to life. As Christmas drew near, I thought about asking someone to read from Dickens’ prompt copy of A Christmas Carol—maybe the Ghost of Christmas Present was sprinkling some good cheer above me. Neil Gaiman would be perfect I decided, so I sent him an email. To my delight he said yes immediately!

In December 2013, as an early birthday present to A Christmas Carol, I welcomed an audience to the New York Public Library and talked about the prompt copy and other Dickensian treasures in the library’s collection (including a letter opener made out of the paw of his deceased pet cat Bob, named after Bob Cratchit). Then, the very wonderful Neil Gaiman read us A Christmas Carol, using the very same prompt copy Dickens used back in 1867.

There were carol singers, there was Christmas décor, there was a sublime reading of the Carol, I signed lots of books to be given as Christmas presents, and a very happy, Christmassy crowd skipped out of the NYPL. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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