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5 Great Examples of in medias res

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You remember it from high school English, but how often do you notice the classic technique of starting a story "˜in the middle' in the books you read, the movies you see, and even the games you play? Here are 5 of my favorite examples:

1. The Odyssey

The advantage of starting a story in the middle, or even at the end, and then doubling back to the same point is the ability to hook the audience immediately, without any exposition, plopping him down right in the middle of the action. Some of the earliest uses of in medias res are still the most formidable. Homer's Iliad makes use of the technique, but The Odyssey is an even better example. If you recall, it starts with most of Odysseus' journey already finished. The story up to that point is then told through flashbacks as we learn about all the fantastic characters he met along the way.

2. The Divine Comedy

Dante-The-Divine-Comedy-Inferno-Purgatory-Paradise-Carlyle-Okey-Wicksteed-unabridged-Blackstone-Audio.jpg Another long, narrative poem that makes great use of the technique is Dante's The Divine Comedy . In fact, not only does it start in the middle, the first line of the Inferno (that's part 1 for those who haven't yet read it), starts Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, Italian for "Midway into the journey of our life."

3. The Gambler

The_GamblerFyodorDostoyevsky.jpg I'll skip some of Shakespeare's works that make use of the technique ( Cymbeline for example) and jump up to Dostoyevsky and a story you may not have read. Most people are familiar with his biggies, like Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov, but it's his lesser-known work, The Gambler, that makes use of in medias res. The novel begins like this:

At length I returned from two weeks leave of absence to find that my patrons had arrived three days ago in Roulettenberg. I received from them a welcome quite different to that which I had expected. The General eyed me coldly, greeted me in rather haughty fashion, and dismissed me to pay my respects to his sister. It was clear that from SOMEWHERE money had been acquired. I thought I could even detect a certain shamefacedness in the General's glance.

It works so well because it immediately and irrevocably immerses us in the world of the protagonist, begging us to ask questions, to turn the page and find out who the narrator is, and what his plight is.

4. Raging Bull

225px-Raging_Bull_poster.jpg While there are more films that use the technique than there are novels (again, because movies need to hook their audiences in even faster than novels do), my absolute favorite is Scorcese's Raging Bull, with Robert De Niro. It starts in 1964 as the hero, Jake LaMotto (De Niro) is rehearsing for a one-man show. The movie ends when Jake walks on stage to deliver the show. What happens in between is the stuff of Oscar-winning films. Through a series of amazing flashbacks, we get the story of how Jake became a pro boxer, married a woman he thought he loved, and lost everything along the way. This enables us to understand why he's an overweight loser at the end of the film doing stand-up for a living.

5. God of War

godofwar.jpg Of course, the technique isn't limited to just books and movies. Many video games have made great use of in medias res, like Final Fantasy X. But to come full circle back to where we started, how about the PlayStation 2 game, God of War, an action-adventure game based on Greek mythology. Dubbed the "Greatest PlayStation Game of All Time" (or something similar) by many (including IGN), God of War pits Kratos, a former captain in the Spartan army, against Ares, the god of war. The story begins at the very end, and then moves chronologically through flashbacks. But it's the bloody battle at the beginning that really sets the pace for the rest of the game and immediately hooks the player in.

What are some of your favorite examples?

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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