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5 Books Dictated From Beyond the Grave

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It’s really hard to write a book; it’s even harder to sell one. Add a dead author into the mix (it's pretty difficult to outline plot points and dictate precise punctuation from six feet under) and you’ve got a real publishing challenge. Enter the Ouija Board. Here are a few of the most famous instances of two frustrated creatives—one dead and one living—coming together to make literature happen.

1. The Sorry Tale, Pearl Lenore Curran and Patience Worth

Starting in the early 1910s, Pearl Lenore Curran and her friend Emily Grant Hutchings worked the Ouija board together twice a week, mostly to keep themselves amused while their husbands played pinochle. For almost a year, the planchette moved around the board but pointed to mostly random letters that didn’t form words, let alone sentences. Then, on July 8, 1913, Patience Worth made her presence known.

According to the frantic spelling across the Ouija board, Patience was born in either 1649 or 1694 “across the sea” and was killed in an Indian raid. Don’t ask which tribe, though. “Would ye with a blade at thy throat seek the [affiliation] of thine assassin?” she once responded to the question.

When really inspired, the Patience-Pearl duo could spell out about 1500 words an hour, which is how she came to be the author of books including The Sorry Tale and Hope Trueblood. Even spirits have their critics, though: Atlantic Monthly essayist Agnes Repplier declared the Worth pieces “as silly as they are dull.”

Curran may have hinted about the true origins of Patience Worth when she wrote a short story for The Saturday Evening Post in 1919 under her own name. The plot went something like this: A girl named Mayme believed she had a “spirit guide” named Rosa. After a bunch of hoopla about the whole supernatural affair, Mayme confessed to a friend that it had all been fabricated. “Oh Gwen, I love [Rosa]!” she admitted. “She’s everything I want to be. Didn’t I find her? It ain’t me. It’s what used to be me before the world buried it.”

“Patience Worth,” by the way, also happens to be the name of a character in a popular novel of the day that probably had some 1900s version of Fabio on the cover. Coincidence (or not): it was set in Colonial times. Pearl Curran said she hadn’t so much as flipped through the bodice-ripper before her own Patience started writing.

2. Jap Herron, Emily Grant Hutchings and Mark Twain

Emily Grant Hutchings, Pearl Curran's bestie, also claimed to receive prose via spectral author. Unlike Curran, though, Hutchings' ghostwriter already had a bunch of bestsellers under his belt. Hutchings, a one-time resident of Hannibal, Missouri, said that a spirit identified himself as “Sam L. Clemens, lazy Sam,” during a routine Ouija Board session, and requested help getting his final literary vision published so he could rest peacefully. “Every scribe here wants a pencil on earth,” Twain spelled out on the board. Not wanting to disappoint one of the greatest authors in history, Hutchings agreed. Throughout the course of writing Jap Herron, Twain offered his opinion on the homemade board (“That apostrophe is too far down. I am in danger of falling off the board every time I make a run for it”), the editing (“Will you two ladies stop speculating? I am going to take care of this story. Don’t try to dictate”), and the tobacco being used by Hutchings’ husband (“In the other world they don’t know Walter Raleigh’s weed and I have not found Walter yet to make complaint”).

Maybe being dead dulled Mr. Clemens’ gift for words and timing, because the end result was roundly panned. “If this is the best that 'Mark Twain' can do by reaching across the barrier, the army of admirers that his works have won for him will all hope that he will hereafter respect that boundary,” The New York Times declared in 1917.

The “co-authored” book had another major critic: Clara Clemens, Samuel’s daughter and the executor of his estate. She sued and was successful in getting Hutchings to cease production of the books and destroy any remaining stock. That means you won’t find Jap Herron next to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in bookstores, but it is available under Hutchings' byline. You can also read it online if you like.

3. God Bless U, Daughter, Mildred Swanson and Mark Twain

Apparently unwilling to let his deceased status slow him down, Samuel Clemens allegedly contacted Mildred Swanson of Independence, Missouri, decades after his dictation to Hutchings. In the late 1960s, Swanson wrote a book called God Bless U, Daughter, a diary of her planchette conversations with Clemens. The title came from the way Clemens signed out of each session. The author, Swanson said, was able to accurately predict events like her mother getting injured in a fall and told her that authors Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Louis Stevenson were also watching over her.

4. The Seth Materials, Jane Roberts and “Seth”

In 1963, a “personality energy essence” calling itself “Seth” contacted Jane Roberts via the Ouija board, which she was using for research on a book about ESP. He wasn’t interested in parlor tricks or delivering messages from long-gone relatives, however. No, Seth preferred to divulge details about reincarnation, free will, telepathy, physical matter, anti-matter, and the subconscious.

As the sessions with Seth went on, Roberts became so comfortable with Seth’s thoughts that she no longer needed the Ouija Board and could simply dictate the messages he was sending through her brain. Together, Roberts and Seth developed enough material for 10 books from more than 1800 sessions.

Here’s Jane in a Seth session from 1974.

5. A View From the Other Side, Mary Maracek and Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts died in 1984 at the age of 55. Naturally, she took it upon herself to channel her writings through someone else just as Seth had done through her. The result is Jane Roberts’ A View from the Other Side, a brief booklet about Jane’s own experiences since her death. Most of Jane’s fans denounce the work as utter fabrication, saying that not only does it not sound like her tone of voice, but it also expresses views that Jane never would have agreed with.

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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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