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The Future of Books Is Experimental: At Home with Tahereh Mafi and Ransom Riggs

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All week long, Tahereh Mafi and Ransom Riggs sit side by side at a long workbench facing their Santa Monica backyard, writing. The couple, both bestselling young-adult novelists, got married last September (tweeting <3s to each other to the joy of their many fans). So that they don’t distract each other, they wear noise-canceling headphones. “The headphones are like saying, ‘I’m in my workspace now.’ When you take them off, you’ve exited that work space,” Mafi explains.

It may be an unconventional writing situation, but it makes sense for a twosome that defies conventionality. In their books, Mafi and Riggs employ multidimensional tactics—respectively, redacted text that reveals the psyche of the narrator and stories spun from found photos—to bring their words to life in new, utterly engaging ways. And the risks they’ve taken have paid off.

Riggs, 34, went to film school, freelanced for a number of sites (including, wrote a book about Sherlock Holmes, produced book trailers, and wrote screenplays before pitching a book idea inspired by his hobby of collecting old snapshots at flea markets. He’d envisioned an Edward Gorey–esque tome featuring couplets—“goofy-creepy,” as he describes it. But his editor at Quirk Books had another idea. Why not use the photos as the basis for a novel? Riggs eagerly agreed. “I let the photos tell me about what the story would be,” he says. “I’m trying to be careful to choose photos that will add a layer of detail and meaning that can’t be expressed in words. They do something that words can’t do.”

The result was the acclaimed Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a novel combining fantasy, mystery, and deliciously weird vintage black-and-white photographs, an instant hit when it was published in 2011. Now, Tim Burton is “officially attached” as the director for the movie, with shooting slated for this year, and in January, Riggs released a hotly anticipated sequel, Hollow City.

If Riggs’s inspiration comes to him in photos, Mafi’s begins with words: “A lot of writers will tell you they’ve been writing their whole lives, but for me it wasn’t like that. I was always a lifelong reader,” she says. After graduating from college in 2009, she began to read Y.A., “everything I could get my hands on,” and then she started writing, penning five or six unpublished manuscripts in a year. Soon, she produced Shatter Me, a dystopian fantasy about an incarcerated teen, which she published in 2011, when she was 23. It became a bestseller.

The inception of the story was the idea of a terrified young girl that came into Mafi’s mind along with a sense of how that girl would use language and why. “When we meet her at the beginning, she’s been locked up for almost a year,” Mafi says. “She hasn’t talked, she hasn’t touched anyone, and she’s spent the majority of her life being treated like a monster. She writes things down and crosses them out and has obsessions with words and numbers and repetition.”

Mafi depicts the fraught psychological state of her protagonist, Juliette, not only through words but also through the absence of words. Juliette thinks and then redacts her own thoughts; Mafi uses strike-throughs to show her confusion and the complexity of her emotions. Throughout the series, as Juliette grows stronger, the strike-throughs evolve. By the third book, they’re gone. The technique offers a kind of interpretive puzzle for the reader, who must figure out the layered messages and, as is the case for Juliette, what exactly should be believed. It was a bold artistic choice, but it was one Mafi believed in. “I sat down to write a book, and I thought, ‘Screw convention. I’m going to write it the way it feels like it needs to be written,’” she says. The method was so successful that Shatter Me was sold as a trilogy. Ignite Me, the final book in the series (which, in addition to Unravel Me, also contains two digital novellas from the perspective of other characters), has just been released.

At a time when people communicate in ever-evolving ways and, increasingly, live in more than one space—online and in “real life”—this sort of experimentation seems especially appropriate. And as pessimists continue to sound a death knell for print, today’s young readers may respond best to narratives like these—ones that aren’t linear, that offer a variety of layered entry points, and that demand for a certain amount of participation. “There is no one way to tell a story,” says Mafi. “The one thing that sets books apart is when they are told with real, raw, honest emotion—if you just throw your heart in it. When that’s there, you can just feel it.” These two authors have figured out ways to marry their particular stories with unique styles that, as Riggs puts it, “keep the story moving forward and do it through the lens of a living, breathing 3-D character.”

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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.