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9 more Frankenstein facts (like #5: how did Darwin get into the book?)

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Halloween is nearly upon us... and there's no better time to take a look at one of the most famous horror stories in literary history: Frankenstein!

In this two-part article, we'll discover some truths (and dispel some myths) about Dr. Frankenstein and The Monster. Yesterday, in Part I, we reviewed the story's influence in movies, TV, music, and pop culture. Today, in Part II, we'll focus on Mary Shelley's original novel.

THE BOOK:

Q: What event halfway around the world helped spawn Frankenstein?

A: The eruption of Mount Tambora in present-day Indonesia. The atmospheric dust the volcano spewed out blocked the Sun's rays, resulting in unseasonably cold weather during the summer of 1816. Mary went to Switzerland along with poet (and husband-to-be) Percy Shelley that May, as houseguests of fellow poet Lord Byron. Unable to enjoy outdoor activities due to the conditions, the group thought it would be fun to challenge each other to write the scariest ghost story imaginable. While Percy and Byron abandoned the project early on, Mary was so struck by a nightmare she'd had that she kept writing. She finished the book the following year, and it was first published in 1818.

Q: How did a book about the creation of a living being manage to escape the wrath of the religious?

Lots more after the jump...

Mary ShelleyA: Initially, the book was published anonymously. The fact that it was dedicated to William Godwin led most to assume it had been written by Percy Shelley, his son-in-law. Some people still believe that it was.

Even after the author's identity was revealed, it would have been difficult to accuse her of heresy. After all, the story came from a dream and was written with the obvious intent of being, well, spooky. Plus, the perspective of the book was so twisted that it was a tale of a tale of a tale. The content was compiled from letters written from Robert Walton to his sister, Margaret Saville. These letters contained Walton's recollections from the story he had been told verbally by Victor Frankenstein. Who's to say how the story changed in the translation, or if Dr. Frankenstein was just a madman with a vivid imagination? Or, perhaps it was Walton himself. He reveals feelings of isolation and profound loneliness in his letters to his sister, so he could have written the story to give himself something to do.

Q: The book is subtitled The Modern Prometheus. Why? And who's Prometheus?

A: It's a reference to Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts, written in 1818 by Mary's lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley. His work was a reinvention of a long-lost, fifth-century BCE play by dramatist Aeschylus, known as "the father of Greek tragedy."

Now, to answer the question, Prometheus was a Greek mythological character "“ a Titan "“ who was said to have designed and created mortal humans. He "borrowed" fire from the gods and gave it to the humans to help them along. This displeased Zeus, who chained the Titan to a rock where he was preyed upon by an eagle until Hercules came along to rescue him.

So "The Modern Prometheus" referenced Dr. Frankenstein, who created his own human being.

Q: Does Shelley mention Charles Darwin in the book's preface?

A: No. (He was born in 1809, several years after the events in the book.) The preface text reads: "The event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed "¦ by Dr. Darwin "¦ as not of the impossible occurrence." But the reference here is to British physiologist Erasmus Darwin, Charles' grandfather. Although Charles' work was inspired by Erasmus' early writings on evolution, the elder Darwin approached the topic much more carefully, treading a line between fiction and non-fiction by penning some of his theories in prose and even poetry.

Q: Per Shelley's novel, in what region of Europe is The Monster brought to life?

University of IngolstadtA: No, not Transylvania. Bavaria. More specifically, in a lab at the University of Ingolstadt. Frankenstein is set in the 1700s, according to the dates of the letters within. An advanced laboratory was constructed near the college grounds in 1778, which could well coincide with the novel's timeline.

The school had been closed nearly 20 years when Shelley's book was published in 1818, giving her license to use it as the setting of the Monster's creation (and perhaps injecting a bit of reality into an otherwise quite unbelievable story).

Q: What character's background was changed after the original publication of Frankenstein?

A: Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor's bride-to-be. In the first printing, she was his first cousin (the daughter of his father's sister). In 1831, the text was revamped to introduce her as an Italian orphan who had been living with foster parents. Victor's mother found her in Milan, and was so enraptured by her that she took the child home as a "gift" for Victor, who described her as "a distinct species, a being heaven-sent."The Frankenstein family adopted the girl.

Q: Who's alive at the conclusion of Frankenstein: Dr. Victor Frankenstein or The Monster?

A: The Monster. Remorseful after the death of his creator, he leaves to lose himself in the frozen arctic wasteland. His death is presumed, but not specified.

Q: In all, how many deaths was The Monster directly (or indirectly) responsible for?

A: Six. William Frankenstein (Victor's brother), Justine Moritz (mistakenly executed for killing William), Henry Clerval (Victor's friend), Elizabeth Lavenza (Victor's fiancée), Alphonse Frankenstein (Victor's father, heartbroken over the recent deaths), and Victor.

And all but one of Victor's sled dogs also perished in the arctic, worked to death in his vain attempt to catch up to The Monster.

Q: How tall is The Monster in the original book?

A: Eight feet. That means only one living man "“ Ukraine's Leonid Stadnykm "“ could look down on him. At eight feet, five inches tall (and still growing!), Stadnykm's extreme height came about in a fashion similar to The Monster: under the knife of a surgeon. He owes his extreme height to a brain operation he underwent as a teenager, which stimulated his pituitary gland and led to his incredible growth.

Q: And was he green, with bolts on his neck and such?

A: No. Victor had designed the creature carefully, making sure the proportions were correct and that his features would be attractive. But when he saw the living Monster for the first time, he was horrified, describing him as having yellowish eyes and long, flowing black hair. Victor noted how his pearly-white teeth contrasted with his "shriveled complexion and straight black lips." And the creature's yellow skin "scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath."

-end-

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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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