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Warner Home Video

The Technicolor Life of L. Frank Baum, the Man Who Created Oz

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Warner Home Video

by Kelly K. Ferguson

In December 1900, L. Frank Baum was a struggling, 44-year-old writer living in Chicago with his wife and four children. Christmas was only days away, and Baum was desperately searching for a way to buy presents for his family.

On a whim, Baum went downtown to ask his publisher for a royalties' advance for the five books he'd written that year. He walked out with a check for one of the books, and promptly stuck it in his pocket. He didn't bother to take a look at it.

When Baum arrived home, his wife, Maud, was ironing a shirt. He reluctantly handed her the check, and at the same moment, they both discovered that it was for $1,423.98—roughly $40,000 today. Paralyzed with disbelief, Maud burned a hole through the shirt.

That book, of course, was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The Man Behind the Curtain

L._Frank_Baum_(1911).jpg

L Frank Baum
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Lyman Frank Baum was born in 1856 in Chittenango, New York. As a child, his weak heart limited his capacity for rough-and-tumble play. So, despite being the seventh of nine kids, he spent most of his childhood alone, indoors, and dreaming.

As a young man, Baum leapt like a flea from career to career. By his early 30s, he'd been a journalist, a printer, a postage-stamp dealer, and a champion poultry breeder, which led him into publishing, with his trade journal The Poultry Record. He also ran his own theater company, where he wrote, directed, and acted in his own plays.

Then, in 1881, Baum met his leading lady—Maud Gage, a sophomore at Cornell. But Maud's mother, Matilda, disapproved of the union. Matilda Gage was a feminist who marched alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in the women's suffrage movement. She saw Baum as a flake who'd never amount to anything, and she told her daughter she'd be a "darned fool" to marry the itinerant actor. Yet, Baum's charm, sincerity, and uncanny ability to tell fantastic stories were no match for Matilda, and he soon won her over. He also became a feminist.

Frank married Maud in 1882, but troubles were around the corner. Baum's theater company went belly-up, and without local prospects, he looked west for opportunity. In 1888, he moved his family to the Dakota Territory, where he opened a store in the town of Aberdeen. (Years later, when Baum wrote descriptions of the Kansas prairie in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, he was actually describing South Dakota.) His shop, Baum's Bazaar, sold Chinese paper lanterns, Bohemian glass, gourmet chocolates, and other exotic items. But Baum overestimated the frontier's demands for novelty shopping. In a few short years, he'd gone bust yet again.

At this point, L. Frank Baum was 35 with no career. He headed east for Chicago, where he received guidance from an unexpected source: his mother-in-law. Matilda Gage convinced Baum to pursue his one true talent, telling stories. In Aberdeen, children had stalked Baum, demanding story hour from the raconteur. Kids loved his tales because they weren't thinly disguised morality lessons. Instead, Baum's stories were fantasies filled with candy, toys, magic, and adventure. Heeding Matilda's advice, Baum decided to give writing a try.

Following the Yellow Brick Road

In 1899, Baum teamed up with illustrator W.W. Denslow and published Father Goose, His Book, a collection of pictures and verse. The collaboration worked so well that it inspired Baum and Denslow to try their hands at a full-length novel.

As a child, Baum had loved the European fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, but he loathed the dark, grisly endings. He envisioned a new American fairy tale in which ingenuity and spunk paid off. In Baum's words, he wanted to create a world where "wonderment and joy are retained, and the heartache and nightmares left out."

It was a great idea, but what would he call this utopia? Family legend holds that Baum scanned his office for ideas. While staring at his filing cabinet, he drew inspiration from a label on the bottom drawer marked "O-Z."

Baum's book was turned down by every major publishing house. Finally, a distribution company agreed to take on the novel about Oz, but only if Baum and Denslow agreed to shoulder the printing expenses. The bet paid off. Today, the masterful integration of color illustrations and text is heralded as a pioneering achievement in literature, a precursor to the graphic novel. Denslow's drawings were unique in that they not only reflected the plot, but also furthered it. His vibrant pictures spilled over from one page to the next.

More importantly, children loved Baum's story. By the end of 1900, Maude had burned a hole through her husband's shirt, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was the best-selling book in America.

Oz Fest

Over the next 20 years, Baum would pen more than 70 books under several pseudonyms. Unfettered by gender restrictions, he often wrote under female names, including Suzanne Metcalf, Laura Bancroft, and Edith Van Dyne. Baum also tried his hand at science-fiction, demonstrating a knack for predicting the future on par with H.G. Wells. A running theme in Baum's work was the triumph of technology over distance and time, and many of his fictional inventions—televisions, satellites, cell phones, laptops—eventually became realities of everyday life.

In 1902, Oz was transformed into a Broadway musical, shortened simply to The Wizard of Oz.

At first, Baum was taken aback by some of the changes. For instance, Dorothy's faithful companion on the stage wasn't Toto, but a cow named Imogene.

But when the play became a Broadway hit, Baum softened. He tried to return to the theater to produce his own plays, but all his efforts, including The Whatnexters and The King of Gee Whiz, were flops. He also tried his hand at a vaudeville show, "Fairylogues and Radio Plays," but that foundered, too.

The truth was that Baum wanted to stop writing about Dorothy and do something new. He intended for the sixth Oz book, The Emerald City of Oz, to be the last in the series. In the story, Baum seals off his fairyland, proclaiming it unreachable from the outside world. But when a film project he was pursuing collapsed, Baum quickly found himself strapped for funds again. He wrote another Oz book, and from then on, Dorothy and the gang kept resurfacing every time Baum needed to pad his wallet.

It's a Twister

In 1919, Baum died of the same heart condition that had kept him indoors as a child. But even death couldn't stop the Oz stories from flowing. Baum wrote the 14th book in the series, Glinda of Oz, on his deathbed, and it was published posthumously. After that, various authors churned out 26 official sequels, which have been translated into 22 languages, from Tamil to Serbo-Croatian.

In 1939, the Oz legacy hit a turning point when MGM released The Wizard of Oz movie. Based on Baum's original storyline, the plot and characters remained relatively faithful to the book, although there were plenty of changes, too. Most of the quotables ("And your little dog, too!") were Hollywood additions, as were the musical numbers and dancing little people. And Dorothy's slippers, which were silver in the book, were changed to ruby in the movie to show off the new technology of color film.

The key difference between the two versions is that in the movie, Dorothy's adventure was "all a dream," while in Baum's book, Oz was very much real. In fact, later in the book series, Uncle Henry and Auntie Em move to the Emerald City to dine off jeweled plates and converse with talking animals. As it turned out, nobody really wanted to go home to Kansas.

The movie established Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion as cultural icons. Flying monkeys and yellow brick roads became part of the national psyche, and today, Oz's popularity shows no sign of waning. The movies, the spin-offs, the Broadway musicals, the plays, and—more recently—the pop-up book just keep cropping up. Much like Dorothy and the gang, Baum took the long way to finding his true calling, but there's no denying that he left behind an enduring legacy. By writing the quintessential American fairy tale, Baum proved that even late bloomers living in their own fantasy world are entitled to happy endings.

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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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