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Surprising Facts About 15 Bestselling Authors

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Heading to the beach this summer? You can't lounge around on the sand without a book, so it's time to hit the bestseller list for a paperback that can get a little wet and sandy. How well do you know the authors of your favorite bestselling beach fare, though? We did some digging and came up with a few surprising facts on some of the literary world's biggest cash cows.

1. Dan Brown didn't get his start as a writer. Oh, no. Before he penned thrillers like The Da Vinci Code, Brown worked as a pop singer and songwriter. His second solo album, Angels & Demons, even shared its title with one of his literary juggernauts.

2. Former lawyer and politician John Grisham may not need to practice law now that he's moved 250 million copies of his books, but he did head to court on one special occasion after his literary success. In 1996 Grisham returned to the courtroom to represent the family of a railroad brakeman who was killed on the job. Apparently Grisham still had his chops; he won the case (and over $650,000) for the family.


3. Nora Roberts has been a staple on the New York Times Bestseller List for years, but it wasn't easy for her to get her foot in the door. According to Roberts, when she was submitting her manuscripts to romance giant Harlequin, the publisher sent her a note rejecting her work because they "already had their American writer."

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4. Danielle Steel's life sounds surprisingly like something from a Danielle Steel novel. The author has been married five times, and there have been some real winners in the bunch. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, husband number two was a bank robber who was convicted of raping a woman while he was married to Steel, and the third Mr. Steel was a heroin-addicted burglar.


5. The late Sidney Sheldon wrote a whole raft of bestsellers even though he didn't start writing novels until after he turned 50. Sheldon kept himself pretty busy before his career took off, though, by creating TV hits like The Patty Duke Show and I Dream of Jeannie. Sheldon also won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for penning The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.

6. Bestselling thriller author John Sandford's work may not be considered high art, but he's got something a number of his more ambitious literary colleagues would kill for: a Pulitzer Prize. Sandford, whose real name is John Camp, picked up a Pulitzer for Non-Deadline Feature Writing in 1986 for a series of articles in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press that chronicled a year in the life of a Minnesota farming family.

GI-Joe7. Having Stephen King as your dad has its perks. In the late 80s, King's son Owen was just as obsessed with G.I. Joe as any other boy. Owen, though, got a little shout-out most of us didn't receive. When Hasbro introduced the new G.I. Joe Sneak Peek in 1987, the character's promotional materials stated that his real name was "Owen S. King," a gesture that may have stemmed from Owen's dad helping to create another G.I. Joe character.


8. Thriller author Clive Cussler often writes about searches for underwater shipwrecks, and it's a topic he knows a thing or two about. Cussler founded the non-profit National Underwater & Marine Agency, and together with his NUMA volunteers has located more than 60 historically significant shipwrecks.


9. Jodi Picoult has enjoyed quite a bit of success as a novelist, but she's also dabbled in comics. In 2007, she wrote a five-issue arc for Wonder Woman.

10. Nicholas Sparks' works like The Notebook fly off of store shelves, but they might not move as quickly as their author. Sparks not only attended Notre Dame on a track scholarship, he also helped set a still-standing school record in the 4 x 800m relay.

11. Before James Patterson became a bestselling thriller writer, he worked for the advertising firm J. Walter Thompson. He's also credited with creating the "Toys R Us Kid" slogan.

janet-e12. Janet Evanovich's novels featuring bounty hunter Stephanie Plum have entertained millions of readers, but where did the author get the idea for a female bounty hunter? She apparently decided to have a bounty hunter protagonist after watching Robert De Niro play one in Midnight Run.


13. Tom Clancy isn't just a techno-thriller novelist; he's also a part owner of the Baltimore Orioles, for whom he serves as Vice Chairman of Community Activities and Public Affairs. If only Clancy could crank out wins as easily as he does bestsellers.


14. Whatever you think about Dean Koontz's novels, it's tough to knock his generosity. Trixie Koontz, the beloved golden retriever in whose name Dean published the book Life is Good: Lessons in Joyful Living was originally a service animal. She came to the Koontz family as gift from Canine Companions for Independence, an organization that trains service dogs, in recognition for Koontz's donations of over $2.5 million to support the group.

15. Harlan Coben's chapter of Psi Upsilon at Amherst must boast the greatest combined book sales of any frat ever. Coben's Myron Bolitar series of detective thrillers has been a bestselling force, and his old fraternity brother Dan Brown knows a thing or two about writing thrillers, too.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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