Original image

Try, Try Again: Rejection Letters Received by Bestselling Authors

Original image

For writers, getting rejected can seem like a pastime. But don’t take my word for it, even though I’ve gotten my share of no-thank-yous. These best-selling authors were rejected, too, and some not very kindly. Editors, publishers and agents have made big errors in judgment, as evidenced by the list of unkind (and sometimes needlessly rude) rejections received by these famous writers.

1. George Orwell

It seems Alfred Knopf didn’t always understand satire. Animal Farm, the famed dystopian allegory that later became an AP Reader standard and Retrospective Hugo Award winner, was turned down because it was “impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.” A British publishing firm initially accepted and later rejected the work as well, arguing that “…the choice of pigs as the ruling caste will no doubt give offense to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are.”

2. Gertrude Stein

Not much burns worse than mockery, and I would imagine Gertrude Stein was probably fuming when she received this letter from Arthur C. Fifield with her manuscript for Three Lives: “Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your MS three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one.” Twenty years later, Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas became her one and only best-seller.

3. Stephen King

Most fans know that King’s big break came with Carrie, the story of a friendless, abused girl with secret telekinetic powers. Though one publishing house told him they were “not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias.  They do not sell,” Doubleday picked up the paperback rights to the novel and sold more than a million copies in its first year.

4. William Golding

Though Lord of the Flies was one of my favorite books from high school, it seems some publishers disagreed. One unimpressed agent called the classic “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” To date, the book has been required reading in high schools for nearly fifty years, 14.5 million copies have been sold, and Golding’s work has been adapted for film twice.

5. Jack Kerouac

It’s not incredibly surprising that Kerouac’s work was considered unpublishable in his time. After all, the guy wrote about drugs, sex, and the kind of general lawlessness that many people in the 1950s considered obscene. When shopping out his ubiquitous On the Road, Kerouac’s agent’s mail contained gems like, “His frenetic and scrambling prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so” and even worse, “I don’t dig this one at all.”

6. Mary Higgins Clark

Back in 1966, the young romance author was trying to sell a story she called “Journey Back to Love.” It didn’t go well, however; her submission to Redbook came back with a rejection from the editors, stating "We found the heroine as boring as her husband had." Ouch! The piece was eventually run as a two-part serial in an English magazine, and Mary Higgins Clark currently boasts forty-two bestselling novels.

7. Ayn Rand

When Rand sent her manuscript out for The Fountainhead, a request from Bobbs-Merrill for her next work-in-progress came back with a curt “Unsaleable and unpublishable.” Not to be deterred, the author called upon Hiram Haydn, newly appointed editor-in-chief of Random House. After an “infinite number” of questions and an assurance that Ms. Rand would not be censored, she signed on with Random House and, to date, has sold over 7 million copies in the U.S.

8. Ernest Hemingway

In a bid to remove himself from a contract with publishers Boni & Liveright, Hemingway penned The Torrents of Spring with the sole intention of being rejected. Horace Liveright turned it down, Hemingway’s contract was broken, and he moved on to find a new publisher. Of course, it didn’t go smoothly; one queried editor told the author that “It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish this.” It all ended well, however. Papa Hemingway moved on to Scribner, who published all of his books from then on—each of which became a bestseller.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
Original image
A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]