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The mental_floss Summer Reading List

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There is no shortage of summer reading lists, but none of those lists include the personal recommendations of Chris Higgins, Ethan Trex and your other _floss favorites. Here's what we think you should be reading this summer. We hope that you'll use the comments section to provide suggestions of your own.

Adrift by Steven Callahan

Subtitled 76 Days Lost at Sea, this is the true story of Callahan's shipwreck and subsequent survival ordeal in an inflatable life raft. Callahan is the only man known to have survived for more than a month in such circumstances, and his first-hand account of the experience is riveting.

While lost at sea, Callahan used the minimal resources available to him—a few items grabbed from his sinking ship, the raft itself, and a lot of ingenuity—to collect fresh water, spear and otherwise trap fish, gather barnacles, plot his position using a sextant made from pencils, and much more. As he drifted, Callahan spotted at least nine ocean liners, but none picked him up.

Callahan's story is gripping and immediate, full of fear and shocking reversals of fortune, but it's ultimately a tale of survival and hope—he does make it to the other side, and today he's a survival consultant and a leading designer of life rafts.

Recommended by Chris Higgins, a daily contributor to and a mental_floss magazine regular.

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The Half-Mammals of Dixie by George Singleton

Half+Mammals.jpgShort stories are perfect for the beach. Even if they've got some genuine literary merit, they're short enough that you can whip through one and then focus on more pressing issues, like how to throw a jellyfish at your friend while making it look like an accident.

Singleton's short stories in this collection, which are all set in the fictional small town of Forty-Five, South Carolina, often feature quirky characters in darkly comic contexts. While the stories are often laugh-out-loud funny, particularly "This Itches, Y'all," the tale of a young boy who acts in a head lice documentary and is subsequently ostracized from grade-school society, Singleton doesn't just play the characters for their comedic value. Instead, he uses his delightfully warped voice to present them affectionately and explore what it means to live in the rural South. The results are often thrilling, and even if you don't normally like short stories, the blend of humor and emotional depth will suck you in and keep you giggling.

Recommended by Ethan Trex, who writes about business and sports on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He also wrote the cover story for our current Olympic issue.

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We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

kevin.jpgI'd highly recommend Lionel Shriver's novel We Need to Talk About Kevin if you're looking for a thoughtful addition to your summer reading list. At times almost too painful to read, the novel is built around a series of letters from Eva Khatchadourian to her husband that tell the heartbreaking story of a teenager who commits acts of unspeakable horror.

In the hands of a lesser talent, this story might be just another "ripped from the headlines" tale of pointless violence, but with Ms. Shriver's sharp eye for detail and thoughtful observations, its characters will stay with you long after you turn the final page. There are no easy answers for the provocative questions that this former journalist and gifted novelist raises. The content might be too intense for some readers, but if you stick with this beautifully written novel, you'll be rewarded for your efforts.

Recommended by Toby Maloney, who heads up our business development efforts and serves as a handler for our newest mascot.

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Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

TreeOfSmoke.jpgEveryone needs to finish a big book during the summer to help them feel productive. At an evenly-paced 614 pages, Tree of Smoke can serve as your "big summer read."

Johnson's novel covers two subjects that I find positively fascinating—the Vietnam War and CIA counterintelligence operations in psychological warfare. This sweeping story follows several compelling characters from before the escalation of violence in Vietnam through the termination of war, and beyond. Written in a unique style reflective of the chaotic atmosphere of the times, Tree of Smoke will keep you conning pages when you should be applying more sunscreen and shifting tanning positions. Johnson offers a stirring examination of why war exists at all...just the type of contemplative romp you'll need between cookouts and trips to the beach.

Recommended by Brett Savage, frequent contributor of high and low culture quizzes.

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Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra &
The United States of Arugula by David Kamp

sacred-arugula.jpgSacred Games is like The Sopranos meet Bollywood: the story of a foul-mouthed gangster who gets tied up in something much bigger than himself, and the Sikh policeman trailing him. A phenomenal read, if difficult to get through sometimes with the dialect. I'm sure I missed some nuance in there because the language was challenging. But overall, a wonderful book with a lot of interesting characters.

The United States of Arugula is an interesting wander through American and French culinary history that starts with the immigrant experience and ends with the complete understanding of why "arugula guy" can be such an insult to modern politicians.

Recommended by our brilliant designer Terri Dann. Among (many, many) other things, Terri designs all those quiz banners.

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How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes by Will Cuppy

apes.jpgIf you are looking to do some light educational reading between dips in the pool this summer, consider Will Cuppy's How To Tell Your Friends from the Apes. Cuppy (1884-1945), a renown literary critic and satirist who was part of the original New Yorker crew, gives nuanced and annotated descriptions of the difference between humans and our simian counterparts, and indeed digresses wonderfully into mentions of other members of the animal kingdom (most notably in the section "Perfectly Damnable Birds," which follows the chapter "What I Hate About Spring").

Imagine Cuppy as a cross between Dave Barry and David Attenburough, with a hefty bit of Wodehouse thrown in for good measure. Take his advice on Tigers: "Tigers live in Asia in nullahs and sholahs. They seldom climb trees, but don't count on that. Young normal tigers do not eat people. If eaten by a tiger, you may rest assured that it is abnormal. Once in a while a normal tiger will eat somebody, but he doesn't mean anything by it."

And what more convincing do you need than the introduction, which is penned by none other than this master of perfectly pleasant pretentious pith, PG Wodehouse himself, who writes, "[Cuppy] says things boldly, regardless of how they may be conflicting with vested interests. 'What this country needs,' he says, nailing his colors to the mast, 'is a good medium-priced giraffe.' If I have thought that once, I have it thought it a hundred times." Haven't we all?

Recommended by Allison Keene, who writes two regular features for mental_floss: 'Dietribes' and 'The Weekend Links.'

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Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

calamity-physics.jpgI usually see summer as a time to expand my knowledge. Don't worry, though, Pessl's book isn't a textbook, and there are no equations to be memorized—it's an impressive novel that's somewhere between a murder mystery and the movie Mean Girls.

The story, concerning a year in the life of Blue van Meer—whose usually nomadic college professor father has temporarily settled in Stockton, North Carolina, while she finishes high school—starts off as any other teen novel. That quickly changes after a series of inexplicable events, concluding with Blue discovering her family's past while investigating the death of a teacher. The unexpected conclusion and amusing wordplay throughout makes Pessl's book a complex and interesting read. While it's a bit longer than most other summer reading choices (at just over 500 pages), the book is an enjoyable and page-turning read. So, if you're looking for something you can't finish in one sitting this summer, Special Topics in Calamity Physics won't disappoint.

Recommended by Ben Smith, one of our intern all-stars.

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The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America by Thurston Clarke

last-campaign-kennedy.JPGIf you love politics but need a break from the exhaustive coverage of the 2008 race, I highly recommend Thurston Clarke's meticulously researched book. The day-by-day recap makes you feel like you're following the story in real time, from the campaign's humble origins in March through its tragic ending at the Ambassador Hotel.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was reading this book, he said he could save me some time and tell me the ending. But Clarke doesn't close with Kennedy's death. The postscript imagines the next ten days of the campaign, June 7-June 17, based on an eleven-page schedule aides had prepared. Clarke calls this artifact "perhaps the most heartbreaking in the Kennedy Library, and there are numerous contenders for that title."

The postscript will have you asking the obvious 'What if...?' questions. But the book also leaves you with a better understanding of how the campaign unfolded, how the assassination affected those who worked for and covered RFK, the mark he left on the country, and why—forty years later—people are still devouring books about those 82 days.

Recommended by Jason English, who'd like to thank his co-workers for agreeing to participate. He encourages everyone to share their own summer reading suggestions in the comments.

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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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Library of Congress
10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.


One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.


Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.


Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”


The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.


Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.


Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.


The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.


Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.