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Book Your Trip Now: 12 Literary Pilgrimages

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Many destinations are benefiting from their connection, however tenuous, to a popular work of literature.

1. Bath, England

Despite being dead since 1817, Jane Austen remains one of the most popular writers in the English language. Her works of quiet social satire have inspired countless film adaptations and modernizations, reams of fan fiction (both of the published and of the online variety), and even a weeklong festival in Bath, England, the scene of many an Austen book. Thousands of Austenophiles spend a week in September dressing up as their favorite character from Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice or any of Austen's other works, engaging in Regency era gossip, partaking in country dances, a wedding, and touring the Pump Room.

2. Prince Edward Island, Canada

Prince Edward Island was the idyllic island home of everyone's favorite plucky, if melodramatic, red-haired orphan, Anne Shirley, better known as Anne of Green Gables, as well as, for a time, her creator, Lucy Maude Montgomery. The Anne of Green Gables books remain some of the most popular children's books, selling, over the course of the series century-long life, 50 million copies in 36 different languages.

The 120-mile island still retains much of the pastoral countryside that Montgomery would recognize and is home to a year-round population of only around 135,000. The island has embraced Anne of Green Gables as, if not exactly its raison d'etre, then at least a good part of the reason why some folks visit. For the past four decades, Anne of Green Gables the musical has run every year at the Charlottetown Festival, while the sequel, Anne & Gilbert, began in 2005 and has run every year since. Interestingly, the term "Anne of Green Gables" is a registered trademark owned jointly by the heirs of Montgomery and the Province of Prince Edward Island.

3. King's Cross Station, London and other places in the Muggle world

linda-platformEver since Harry Potter took over the world, King's Cross Station hasn't been the same—the fabled depot for the Hogwarts Express really does have a Platform 9 3/4. The mythic platform is tucked away in a passageway between two other platforms, sports half of a rather forlorn luggage trolley sticking out of the wall, and is routinely visited by Muggles with cameras (see photo, yep, that's me).

But that's not the only stop on the Harry Potter tour: This past summer, a tourism company devoted solely to Harry Potter put together a five-day "School of Wizardry" in the Chicago area, involving classes in Divination and Astronomy, a Hogwarts banquet, and even a field trip to Chicago for Harry Potter: The Exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry. British tour companies of all stripes have Harry Potter inspired tours through England and Scotland, though it is difficult to parse out book tourism versus movie tourism, since the two very much tend to overlap.

If you want to make your own Harry Potter tour, then check out In Search of Harry Potter by Steve Vander Ark. I can't vouch for its quality, but it seems promising and the folks who bought it, according to Amazon, enjoyed it.

4. The Grail Trail, inspired by The Da Vinci Code

In the months and years after Dan Brown's blockbuster book came out, inspired tourists swarmed the Louvre and Church of Saint-Suplice in Paris, and Westminster Abbey and the Templar Church in London, searching for arcane clues to the whereabouts of the Holy Grail. While these were already big tourist stops to begin with, administrators and operators of the locations noted an upswell in tourists—and that many of them had The Da Vinci Code tucked under their arms. At the height of the book's fame, tour companies were putting together trips and walks inspired by the books, prompting some of these locations to post signs indicating that no, grisly murders and pagan sex rituals were not known to have taken place there:

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The Louvre, for one, still offers a Da Vinci Code-based tour, beginning under the famous I.M. Pei pyramid.

5. Walden Pond, Massachusetts

walden-pond

Once the site of Henry David Thoreau's misanthropic experiment, Walden Pond—a state park—is a perfectly clear 102-foot deep glacial pond open for swimming. Only 1,000 visitors are allowed in at a time, so while it's not exactly the isolated spot it once was, it's still pretty quiet.

Thoreau only lived at Walden for two years, in a tiny, single-room shack barely large enough for a small bed, a desk, and a chair; in the 155 years since the publication of the book, however, hundreds of thousands of Thoreau pilgrims have visited the site in the hopes of earning the quiet contemplation and spiritual connectedness that Thoreau seemed to have achieved. Once they got there, however, they may have been disappointed: As Thoreau's place in the literary canon became sacrosanct, more and more people packed into the little pond. During the summer of 1952, crowds averaged 35,000 people, who brought with them their cars, hot dog stands, and litter. This prompted Massachusetts to make the site a "reservation" and put strict limits on the number of visitors, allowing the area to revert to a more natural state.

6. Rowan Oak, Faulkner's Mississippi home

More books, papers and articles have been written about Southern writer William Faulkner than any other writer in the English language, excepting, of course Shakespeare. So it stands to reason that there be some tangible monument to his work, a place where Faulkner fans can go to wonder at his genius and study his life. In 1972, they got that place after his daughter sold their family home, Rowan Oak, where Faulkner spent some of his most productive years, to the University of Mississippi. The home, a Greek Revival edifice that pre-dates (and survived) the Civil War, is visited by thousands each year.

7. Barnhill, Jura, Scotland

Barnhill was George Orwell's misty Scottish retreat, far from the city and civilization, where ironically enough, he wrote the claustrophobic classic 1984. Orwell, whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair, used the income from his other classic, Animal Farm, to rent a cottage on the small, isolated isle of Jura off the coast of Scotland. It was there, afflicted by the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him, that he finished the book. 1984 is still a staple of the high school lit course and in 2009, Queen Elizabeth II made headlines when she presented the visiting president of Mexico with a copy of the dystopian masterpiece, prompting the news media to wonder exactly what she meant by that.

In any case, if reading 1984 wasn't depressing enough, you can immerse yourself in the Orwellian milieu by renting Barnhill for a week—only 8 miles from the nearest telephone and 25 from the nearest pub, the cottage is going for about $780 a week. Provided you can get there, of course.

8. Hemingway's home in Key West, Florida

hemingway-keywest

Ernest Hemingway's Key West home, where he lived from 1931 to 1939 and wrote A Farewell to Arms, is now overrun with polydactyl felines, supposedly the descendants of cats originally owned by Hemingway (a claim refuted by his surviving family). Cats aside, Hemingway did live and write there, did reclaim a urinal from Sloppy Joe's and turn it into a water fountain, and did set up a boxing ring in the front yard. The place is also home to the first swimming pool in Key West, installed by Hemingway's second wife, Pauline.

But truly, the main attraction at this National Historic Landmark is the cats—it's like crazy cat lady colony heaven. There are about 60 cats living at the house, and many of them have either six or seven toes on each foot. They sport names like Spencer Tracy, Archibald MacLeish, Simone de Beauvoir, Emily Dickinson, and Gertrude Stein.

9. New Orleans, Louisiana

Despite the fact that Anne Rice has turned her back on vampire lit and instead embraced recreations of the life of Jesus, tourism to the Gothic underside of the city of bourbon, blood and lust blew up after her Vampir Lestat novels hit the bestseller list. New Orleans, with its deep vein of voodoo and Santeria and dark history of slavery and war, took to the influx of vampire tourists with aplomb, even spreading rumors that "vampires" were loose on the streets, slashing the unsuspecting and drinking their blood.

In the 1990s, at the height of her fame, Rice herself organized tours of the city, which then included stops at her first home, at St. Elizabeth's Orphanage (a 93-room former orphanage that Rice bought and renovated) and Lafayette Cemetery.

While Rice has left New Orleans for a gated subdivision out in the suburbs, a number of tours still exist that take their inspiration from Rice's books, with stops at the historic Gallier House, the inspiration for Louis and Lestat's house in Interview with a Vampire, various other Garden District homes, and of course, the cemeteries.

10. Hotel Chelsea, New York

hotel-chelseaYou can get most of your literary tourism out of the way —and some of your musical and modern art tourism, too—with a single, mind-boggling trip to the Hotel Chelsea. For decades, the hotel enjoyed a storied reputation as the haunt of drug addicts, alcoholics, writers, and sometimes all three: Charles Bukowski, Thomas Wolfe, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Allen Ginsberg, O. Henry, Jean-Paul Satre and others have all written from there, drank there, argued there, or even died there. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road there, Charles Jackson of The Lost Weekend committed suicide there, and Sid Vicious woke up to find his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, dead from a stab wound to the stomach there.

11. Oxford, England

Oxford is a Mecca for fantasy fans of all stripes: This college town was the home of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll), and more recently, Phillip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials books. While Oxford's amazing architecture and hushed historical tones are enough of a tourist draw, fantasy fans who want to see where it all began can check out the Museum of Oxford, which is home to several personal artifacts of the real Alice, Alice Liddell; stop for a pint at the Eagle and Child pub, where Tolkien, Lewis, and other members of the Inklings, would sit, talk, and debate theology; visit the place where he wrote The Hobbit and the first two Lord of the Rings books at 20 Northmoor Rd. or leave flowers at Tolkien's grave at the Wolvercote Cemetery; and tour Exeter College, Pullman's alma mater that was transfigured into the Jordan College of the His Dark Materials books.

12. The Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta

The Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta is the three-story Tudor Revival apartment building in Mitchell herself wrote the seminal Southern apologist epic, Gone With The Wind; the whole thing is now a museum dedicated to the author and Southern history, one of Atlanta's most popular tourist attractions.

Mitchell and her husband moved into apartment 1 of the building in 1925; she began writing the Pulitzer Prize-winning book soon after. Gone With the Wind, published in 1936, was immediately a tremendous success and turned into the blockbuster classic film three years later. Mitchell never wrote another novel, although she was for the next few years a very popular figure in Atlanta society; in 1949, however, she was killed by an off-duty cab while she was crossing the street.

Bonus: Trilby, Florida

This entry isn't exactly about a place offering literary tourism now, and it isn't exactly about a place that offered literary tourism then—it's more about the power of fans and the books they love.

trilbyWhen it was published in 1894, Trilby was hugely popular in America. The book, about a young half-French, half-Irish woman named Trilby O'Ferrall who, whilst under the spell of a hypnotist Svengali, transforms from a tone-deaf grisette into famous diva. The Gothic horror romance novel, written by George Du Maurier, whose granddaughter Daphne Du Maurier would practically reinvent the genre with Rebecca, inspired a rabid fandom along the lines of Twilight: Women donned striped skirts like the heroine and harbored romantic notions of the Parisian bohemian lifestyle in the 1850s; families named their pet turkeys after Trilby; people hosted "Trilby" teas and parties; the word "Svengali" became a byword for a person possessing an evil kind of charisma and able to control others around him; and whole towns transformed themselves into a paean to the book.

Well, one town. Trilby, Fla., a tiny collection of storefronts and houses due west of Orlando. At the time, the place was called Macon, but residents of the town soon realized that people and letters directed for Macon, Fla., were being misdirected to the larger and better known Macon, Ga. Not long after the book was published, the president of the railroad line that promised to invigorate the little town decided change its name to Trilby and to name the streets after characters in the book. For awhile, the name change seemed to stimulate interest in the town, if not exactly tourism—riders on the train while passing through would crane their necks out the windows to catch sight of "Svengali Square" and "The Laird Lane." Sadly, in 1925, a fire destroyed much of the budding township and its potential future as a Trilby tourist trap; by that time, however, some of the charm of being named after a book whose popularity was waning was wearing off.
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There are hundreds of thousands of places made famous by their relationships with popular books; what are some of the more weird and out of the way ones that you know of? Any favorites?

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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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