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10 Things You Might Not Know About Charlotte’s Web

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In Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White created beloved characters out of the most unlikely of animals—a runt of a pig named Wilbur and a spider named Charlotte, who weaves words in her web to save his life. This poignant tale about life and death on a farm is still one of the best selling children’s books of all time. 

1. THE FARM IN THE BOOK WAS REAL.

“This is a story of the barn,” E.B. White said. “I wrote it for children, and to amuse myself." Along with being an essayist and co-author of The Elements of Style, White owned a farm in Maine. While he wrote Charlotte’s Web in the property's boathouse, he was imagining the farm's red barn, where he kept geese, sheep, and pigs. The barn even had a swing like the one described in the story: “Mr. Zuckerman had the best swing in the county. It was a single long piece of heavy rope tied to the beam over the north doorway." 

2. A SICKLY PIG INSPIRED WILBUR.

As a farmer, White raised pigs for slaughter. As an animal lover, he felt conflicted about killing animals that he'd come to like. In one case, a pig he owned got sick. Even though White had originally planned to kill the pig for food, he devoted himself to nursing it back to health, staying up with it all night and calling the vet—but the pig died anyway. White seemed surprised by how much its death bothered him. He wrote in the essay "Death Of A Pig," “He had evidently become precious to me, not that he represented a distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world.”

3. CHARLOTTE WAS BASED ON A REAL SPIDER. 

One day, White noticed a spider in his barn making an egg sack. He was so interested, he got a stepladder to take a closer look. After that, he never saw the spider again. When he was getting ready to go to New York City for the winter, he decided to take the egg sack with him. He cut it down with a razor blade and put it in a candy box with holes punched in the top. Then he left the box on top of his bureau in his New York bedroom. Soon enough, the egg sack hatched and baby spiders emerged from the box.

“They strung tiny lines from my comb to my brush, from my brush to my mirror, and from my mirror to my nail scissors,” he wrote in a letter. “They were very busy and almost invisible, they were so small. We all lived together happily for a couple of weeks, and then somebody whose duty it was to dust my dresser balked, and I broke up the show. At the present time, three of Charlotte's granddaughters are trapping at the foot of the stairs in my barn cellar, where the morning light, coming through the east window, illuminates their embroidery and makes it seem even more wonderful than it is.”  

4. CHARLOTTE'S NAME IS BASED ON SCIENCE.

When White started writing the story, he called the spider Charlotte Epeira because he misidentified the spider in his barn as a gray cross spider, Epeira sclopetaria. Then he contacted an expert at the American Museum of Natural History and was able to correctly identify the spider as Araneus cavaticus—the common barn spider. Thus, his spider was renamed Charlotte A. Cavatica. 

5. FERN WASN'T ADDED UNTIL THE LAST DRAFT OF THE BOOK.

“'Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern.” This first line of Charlotte’s Web feels so perfect that’s hard to believe that Fern was almost not in the book. At first, White struggled with how to start the story, unsure whether to begin with Wilbur or Charlotte. Then at the last minute, he added Fern, the little girl who pleads with her father not to kill the runt piglet named Wilbur. Although she fades from the story as she matures, Fern adds layers of humanity that connects directly to the young reader. 

6. WHITE'S EDITOR HAD NO IDEA HE WAS WRITING THE BOOK.

After the success of Stuart Little in 1945, White’s editor Ursula Nordstrom didn’t expect him to be writing another book until he showed up suddenly in her office with Charlotte’s Web. She was shocked and asked if the manuscript was a carbon copy. "No," he said, "this is the only copy; I didn't make a carbon copy." Then he got on the elevator and left. Not wanting to risk losing the only manuscript of the book, Nordstrom sat down and read it right there. “I couldn't believe that it was so good!” she wrote. The book was published in 1952 and was a huge success, selling 100,000 copies in 16 months.

7. THE ILLUSTRATOR WANTED TO GIVE CHARLOTTE A WOMAN'S FACE.

Garth Williams, who also illustrated Stuart Little and the Little House on the Prairie series, wasn’t sure how to draw Charlotte at first. He wanted her to look friendly and charming, two words most people wouldn’t associate with spiders. He tried drawing her with a woman’s face and even went so far as to make her look like the Mona Lisa (you can see some of those sketches here). Both White and Nordstrom nixed the idea. Finally, they settled on drawing an anatomically correct spider with two little pinpoints for eyes.

8. PEOPLE CRITICIZED CHARLOTTE'S WEB FOR DEPICTING DEATH.

While Charlotte’s Web received great reviews, it was still disparaged by some educators and parents because of the characters—a book about a spider?—and because Charlotte dies. In a letter to Nordstrom (which was unpublished but cited in The Annotated Charlotte's Web), White made fun of the criticism with a bit of satire: “I am working on a new book about a boa constrictor and a litter of hyenas. The boa constrictor swallows the babies one by one, and the mother hyena dies laughing.”

9. HOLLYWOOD WANTED TO CUT CHARLOTTE'S DEATH FROM THE CARTOON.

White resisted Hollywood at first, nervous about what a studio would do to his book. Finally, in 1973, Hanna-Barbera made a cartoon of Charlotte’s Web with Debbie Reynolds as the voice of Charlotte. Predictably, Hollywood tried to get a happier ending for the story, worried about a kids' film where one of the main characters dies. But White held firm that Charlotte’s death was essential to the story and in the end, he won. The cartoon remains faithful to the book.

10. WHITE RECORDED THE AUDIO BOOK OF CHARLOTTE'S WEB IN 1970.

Even though it had been almost 20 years since he wrote the book, Charlotte’s death still made him emotional. "Every time, he broke down when he got to Charlotte's death," Michael Sims, author of The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic, told NPR. "And he would do it, and it would mess up. ... He took 17 takes to get through Charlotte's death without his voice cracking or beginning to cry." You can listen to him reading the book above—but keep a tissue handy, just in case.

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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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