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10 Literary Holidays

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Bibliophiles know there's no wrong time to fete your favorite book or author. But if you want company—at least among a certain subset of the population—in your celebration, plan a party for one of these delightful literary holidays.

1. January 25: Burns Supper

Popular throughout the United Kingdom, and especially Scotland, this celebration (which goes by several other names depending on what you call the nation's premier poet—Robert Burns, Robbie Burns or even Rabbie Burns) features a set menu of Scottish favorites, including haggis, which is addressed in the verses of Burns himself. Other poems are read, speeches of appreciation are performed and, in the case of more formal iterations, the night ends with dancing.

2. March 2: National Read Across America Day, or Dr. Seuss Day

This soon-to-be 17-year-old celebration is an opportunity for the National Education Association to encourage parents, teachers, and children to share their love of reading. And what better day to do so than on the great Dr. Seuss' birthday?

3. March 4: National Grammar Day

Founded in 2008 by Martha Brockenbrough, who also founded the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, this is a day to snuggle up to your favorite style guide. You could also participate in the annual Twitter-based, grammar-themed haiku contest. Snarkily policing other people's grammar is not condoned.

4. May 20: Eliza Doolittle Day

While celebrating this holiday might only appeal to theater nerds and Audrey Hepburn afficionados, the origin of the date is a story worth telling. In Act 1 of My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle imagines meeting the king and sings: "One evening the king will say, 'Oh, Eliza, old thing — I want all of England your praises to sing. Next week on the twentieth of May, I proclaim Eliza Doolittle Day.'" And so now it is.

5. June 16: Bloomsday

One of the most well-known book-based holidays, Bloomsday derives its name from Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of James Joyce's Ulysses, and is set on the day that the entirety of the book takes place. Most popular in Joyce's Dublin, the Stateside celebration centers at Philadelphia's Rosenbach Museum & Library, home to the handwritten manuscript of Ulysses.

6. July 4, 5, and 6: National Tom Sawyer Days

Oh you thought the Fourth of July was just Independence Day? Well, in the Hannibal, Missouri hometown of Mark Twain, it's also part of a multi-day honoring of the classic American author. Activities are based on scenes from Twain's books, including a frog long jump and a fence painting contest.

7. July 10: Clerihew Day

Chief among the niche nature of the holidays on this list, Clerihew Day celebrates the eponymous poem form invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley on the English author's birthday. While you might not know it by name, the clerihew is a sing-songy poem that most people have encountered in jest. The general form is four lines consisting of rhyming couplets AA/BB that starts with a person's name and tells you something, often mocking, about the subject.

8. July 16 to 21: Hemingway Days

This July will mark the 34th time that fans of Ernest Hemingway's work and persona gather to engage in a week of emulating the Pulitzer Prize-winning Papa in Key West, where he spent many productive years. Attendees will participate in look-alike contests, readings, and a marlin fishing tournament, among other Hemingway-approved events.

9. September 22: Hobbit Day

Celebrated on the fictional birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, Hobbit Day actually caps off an entire Tolkien week—described as "the calendar week containing September 22" by the American Tolkien Society, which first marked the holiday in 1978.

10. October 16: Dictionary Day

Of course, any day is a good day to broaden your lexical library, but the birthday of Noah Webster is a particularly apt occasion.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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