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4 Must-Read Books for Aspiring Writers

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If there's one thing writers love talking (and complaining) about, it's writing. Lots of authors have put out books about their writing processes -- some better than others. Here are four of my favorites. (And please use the comments to suggest more books on writing that deserve to be featured!)

1. Telling Lies for Fun & Profit

Telling Lies for Fun & Profit is easy to read, as it's actually a collection of magazine pieces -- each chapter is designed to grab a magazine reader, and this style actually makes it easy to put down in between chapters. As a whole, the book is more about the business and specifics of working as a writer than about the writing itself -- if you're looking for specifics on plotting and structure, go elsewhere. But if you want to read helpful, fun stories about how Block made his living writing fiction -- and how you can, too -- have a look, over at Amazon.

2. The War of Art

The War of ArtThe War of Art (subtitled: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles) by Steven Pressfield is a clever twist on the classic "Art of War" by Sun Tzu. But this time, the enemy is "Resistance" -- an inner demon that seeks to divert and destroy the writer (or businessperson, or whatever) from his or her goal. Pressfield draws on his own experience "going pro" (he wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance after many unsuccessful novels and screenplays) to make a compelling statement to aspiring writers: treat writing like a job. Get up in the morning and do it; the Muse will come, if you stick it out. But more than just telling you to do it, he dissects a series of arguments and issues that get in the way. By two-thirds of the way trhough the book, I was ready to leap from my chair and go write something -- it's that compelling.

The last part of The War of Art goes slightly off the rails (in my humble opinion), as Pressfield describes his belief in angels who are actively interceding to help with his writing process (but only after being properly beseeched via prayer). But whether you believe in angels or not, the bulk of the book is genuinely useful in guiding a beginning writer from amateur to pro -- and it's organized in very short, bite-sized chapters. Check it out at Amazon.

3. On Writing

On WritingOn Writing by Stephen King is a modern classic that tells King's story of becoming a writer, and gives details of his current process. I'm always curious about the specifics of a writer's daily life (what time does he wake up? Does he work at home or out in the world? And so on...) and King gives up all this information -- he describes his daily schedule, daily word counts, and what reference books he actually uses (okay, I'll just tell you here: Strunk and White). King's book is interesting both as autobiography (it was written around the time of his life-threatening encounter with a van) and as guidance for writers. He gives plenty of details and exercises on writing, with a major focus on dialogue -- one of his great strengths.

On Writing is a quick read, but there's material in the book for later study, should you be so inclined. If you're curious about Stephen King's early years typing in the laundry room of his trailer, this is the book to read. As usual, it's available at Amazon.

4. The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers

The Believer Book of Writers Talking to WritersThe Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers is a compilation of interviews from The Believer, an excellent literary magazine. A few of the twenty-three interviews are previously unpublished, but the bulk are standard Believer fare -- smart, beautifully typeset discussions between creative people. I enjoyed this because it's so casual -- in general, it's just a lot of talking, and often the people talking are way smart. Warning for haters of The Believer/McSweeney's: you might find the discussion between Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace a little crazy-making, but then again, what did you expect?

The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers is available...wait for it...from Amazon.

Now, I know there are more great books on writing out there in the wild. What are your favorites?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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