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Judging Books by their Covers: 10 Unforgettable Designs

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If you're a fan of this blog, you probably like to read. A lot. And you probably have your own favorite book jacket designs. Go ahead and drop "˜em in the comments so we can build on this admittedly subjective list. Oh, and if you have a book jacket you just find revolting, let us know about that one, too. We'll be doing a follow-up post in the coming week about really awful book jacket designs.

1. The Great Gatsby

Born in Spain in 1893, artist Francis Cugat couldn't have known what history had in store for him when he was commissioned by Charles Scribner's Sons to create the cover for this monumental 1925 novel. As the story goes, Cugat finished the artwork way before F.Scott Fitzgerald finished the manuscript. When the publisher shared the design with Fitzgerald, he was so enamored of it, so inspired, he is thought to have worked the design into the fabric of the narrative. Where? Well one hypothesis is often cited in Nick Carraway's description of Daisy, as the girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs. Another possible influence may been seen in the symbolic billboard eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg. From the novel: But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift end¬lessly over it, you perceive, after a mo¬ment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic -- their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but instead from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose.

Whether Fitzgerald was influence by the artwork or not, we may never know. And this is hardly the only mystery associated with the novel. For instance, no other Cugat book jacket has ever been identified, other than The Great Gatsby, and no one knows when or where the mysterious artist died. Sounds like Hollywood material, no?

2. Darkness at Noon

darknessArthur Koestler's most famou novel was first published in 1940 and reflects the author's bleak view of Communism in the late "˜30s. It was originally published in German. This Scribner reprint came out in 2006 and was designed by the Office of Paul Sahre. It's the kind of cover that's so bright, it makes you squint, literally.

3. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

DoAndroidsDreamSignet1971Bob Pepper created a lot of amazing artwork for some of the most famous Philip K. Dick books, including A Scanner Darkly and We Can Build You. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was first published in 1968 as a hardcover by Doubleday. The Pepper paperback version came out a year later. For some more cool Bob Pepper sci-fi designs, check out this link.

4. Norwegian Wood

norJohn Gall is Art Director for Vintage and Anchor Books an imprint of Alfred A Knopf, which is a publishing group within Random House Inc. He and his team are the brilliant designers behind all those amazing Haruki Murakami book jackets (the English translation versions). In an interview I read with Gall, he said his team generally has 6-8 weeks to come up with cover designs for about 70 books! Makes me all the more appreciative of those Murakamis.

5. The Last Lonely Saturday

Picture 2No list would be complete without mentioning Jordan Crane, writer, graphic novelist, comic cartoonist, and brilliant designer. For a look at a bunch of other covers he's designed, check out his site here.

6. Jurassic Park

425px-JurassicparkLikewise, no list would be complete without author, editor, and graphic designer, Chip Kidd, who has been responsible for some of the book industry's best designs in recent years. This classic 1990 cover for Jurassic Park was so successful, Universal stole it when they put together the artwork to market the film of the same name. Kidd's designs for his own books are no less memorable. Check some more of them out here.

7. Of Mice and Men

OfMiceAndMenJohn Steinbeck's classic tale about George Milton and Lennie Small was first published in 1937. The great, original jacket design was created by artist Ross MacDonald, not to be confused with the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar, the famous crime fiction novelist.

8. Catch-22

Catch22Paul Bacon is like the Quincy Jones of book jacket design. He's designed covers for Ernest Hemingway, William Golding, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, E.L. Doctorow, Phillip Roth, Michael Crichton, and Joseph Heller, among scores of others. This 1961 cover for Simon & Schuster's original Cath-22 has always been a favorite.

9. One Red Paperclip

clip.jpegYou may have read the blog already but if not, this is the story about a guy who changes his life, starting with a paperclip, and trading up. In just fourteen trades, he's able to acquire a home. The book was published by Three Rivers (a trade paperback imprint of the Crown Publishing Group). The brilliant design was created by Kyle Kolker. You might expect a house on the front cover, or some of the other 12 things he traded for. That's the beauty of this beauty: simple, simple, simple.

10. In Cold Blood

x3412Vintage published Capote's account of the now-famous quadruple murder case in 1966. The original jacket was designed by S. Neil Fujita, who also once served as the art director for CBS Records, and designed such iconic graphics as the Godfather logo. Speaking about the book jacket experience, Fujita said, "I showed Truman Capote my ideas for In Cold Blood. I thought of a red hat pin that I stuck into the title of the book to suggest death or something like that, but he didn't like the color. "˜It can't be red, because it wasn't a new death, it didn't just happen,' so I changed the color to purple and added a black border to suggest something more funereal. Capote loved that.

So does this blogger.

How about you all? What are some of your favorites?

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]