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The 25 Most Influential Books of the Past 25 Years: The Alchemist

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The latest issue of mental_floss just hit newsstands. Rosemary Ahern's cover story chronicles 'The 25 Most Influential Books of the Past 25 Years.' This week, we'll be revealing five of those influential books here on the blog. And if this puts you in a subscribing mood, here are the details.

The Alchemist

by Paulo Coelho (1988)

The Book That Found Treasure on the Internet

In the 1970s, Paulo Coelho was a famous lyricist in Brazil. But after the government found some of his words offensive, he ended up jailed and tortured on three separate occasions. Coelho fled to Europe, where he joined a small Catholic sect and rediscovered himself spiritually. In 1986, he made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, which inspired him to write The Alchemist, a tale of another man on a spiritual journey. In the story, a young Spanish shepherd named Santiago dreams of treasure buried near pyramids, then sets off to find it. He soon encounters an alchemist who gives him two stones with the power to decipher omens. On his travels, Santiago gets robbed, falls in love, participates in tribal warfare, and learns that the treasure he's been seeking has been within him the entire time. Although critics often dismiss the book as New Age tripe, fans call it life changing.

The most intriguing thing about The Alchemist may not be the author's background or the book's plotline, but how Coelho invented a new way to sell books.

Since its original release in Brazil, The Alchemist has sold more than 65 million copies, making it one of the most popular books of all time. This is partially due to Coelho's ingenious skill for marketing. In Russia, for example, the book had sold less than 1,000 copies. So, in 1999, Coelho's Russian publisher dropped him. The author quickly found another publisher and took the radical step of posting a free, digital, Russian-language version of The Alchemist on his Web site. Immediately, sales of the print edition picked up. In the first year, 10,000 copies sold. The next year, sales multiplied to 100,000, and by 2008, Coelho had sold 10 million books in Russia. The author believes that offering his work for free on the Internet was key to stimulating sales of hard-copy editions, and he has vehemently urged publishers to adopt this counterintuitive marketing strategy to keep print books alive and flourishing. In 2007, Suze Orman followed in Coehlo's footsteps and offered an online version of Women & Money for free on Oprah's Web site for 24 hours. After readers downloaded more than 1 million copies, sales of the print edition soared.

More Influential Books

Thinking in Pictures (The Book That Explained Autism from the Inside Out)
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And the Band Played On (The Book That Forced Us to Acknowledge AIDS)
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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (The Book That Lost Nothing in Translation)
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Middlesex (The Book That Showed Us That Mars and Venus Aren't the Only Planets)

If you order here, you'll get a full year subscription AND a mental_floss t-shirt for a very low price. So, go ahead and support your favorite little magazine. Your expanding mind (and wardrobe) will thank you.

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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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