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6 Lost Works That Finally Turned Up

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While specific events in history have played a major part in the disappearance of many classical works of art, literature and music (the burning of the Library at Alexandria, for instance), sometimes these things are lost to time, poor preservation or deliberate destruction. And sometimes, they show up in unexpected places or under interesting circumstances, like these six.

1. The Royal House of Savoy

Alexandre Dumas, like many authors, was sometimes pressed to write something quickly for money. This seems to be the case with The Royal House of Savoy, a 2500-page story that was serialized in Le Constitutionnel in 1854. It was so good, in fact, that neither the National Library of France nor the Alexandre Dumas Museum had any knowledge of it. Two historians browsing an antique bookstore in Turin, Italy, discovered it in 1998; since then, it has been published again in France, but an English version isn't in the works.

2. Profile of a Young Fiancée

Attributed to an anonymous 19th-century German artist, Profile of a Young Fiancée sold for a surprising $21,850 at a 1998 Christie's New York auction. The amount seemed unbelievably high at the time, but over the next ten years, Nicholas Turner (formerly the Curator of Drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum) and a team of respected experts determined that the chalk-and-watercolor portrait was probably drawn by Leonardo da Vinci in (or around) 1485—making $21,850 a relative pittance. However, the attribution to da Vinci is not exactly universally accepted, and despite evidence from multi-spectral photographic analysis and the work's inclusion in a 2008 publication titled Leonardo Infinito, many scholars still doubt the portrait was drawn by da Vinci.

3. "War Thoughts at Home"

This poem by Robert Frost is a 35-line story of a woman, set during World War I. Unknown to all but Frederic Melcher, the work remained unpublished for 88 years until its happenstance discovery in 2006. Melcher—a book dealer who was a friend of Frost—donated his collection of the poet's letters and books to the University of Virginia; the items were newly acquired and hadn't even been cataloged when Robert Stilling, a graduate student, heard about them. While skimming through the stacks, Stilling came across a correspondence from 1947 describing an unpublished poem written by Frost. Curious, Stilling began looking through the collection and, within minutes, found "War Thoughts at Home" scrawled inside a copy of North of Boston, an inscription Melcher had deemed "really not important" in his letter to a museum asking for interesting items.

4. Trio in E Flat

Composed by Ludwig van Beethoven for violin, viola and cello in 1792, this untitled trio was partially arranged for piano, violin and cello by the composer around 1800. With only the first movement and 43 measures of the second movement completed, the project was abandoned and subsequently lost for over 100 years. German musicologist Willy Hess published the handwritten manuscript in a scholarly review in 1920, garnering almost no attention from working musicians. The first known performance of the 12-minute piece was on March 1, 2009—almost 182 years after Beethoven's death. For the occasion, the Beethoven Project Trio were lent a 1703 Stradivarius violin and 1739 Guarnerius cello, both made long before Beethoven was born in 1770.

5. In the Hammock

In May of 1882, Swedish artist Anders Zorn took a trip to England to work; there he met Mary Smith, who would become his favorite model. Smith is the subject of Zorn's In the Hammock, a watercolor depicting a young woman in a white dress resting in a hammock. The painting was thought to be lost or destroyed, and was known only from a photograph until it was discovered in 2006 at a Bonham & Butterfields valuation day (something like an Antiques Roadshow event). The painting was auctioned for just over ₤250,000, well above the predicted sale price.

6. With Custer on the Little Bighorn

custer.jpgWilliam O. Taylor was 21 years old when he left Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory; it was 1876, and the men in Troop A of the 7th United States Cavalry Regiment were on their way to an ill-fated battle with a large encampment of Sioux, Lakota, and Northern Cheyenne warriors. Taylor's troop was one of three involved in the initial attack at the Little Bighorn, after which they promptly retreated. Taylor escaped and was discharged in 1877, never having seen another battle. He wrote his story and stored it in a black tin box that, following his death in 1923, was passed along and eventually forgotten. It wasn't found until editor and artifact collector Greg Martin purchased an uncataloged lot of Custer-related items; he assembled the manuscript, wrote a forward and published the book in 1996, 73 years after Taylor's death. It is the only eyewitness account of the Battle of Little Bighorn ever written.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]