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The Quick 10: 10 Literary Smack-Downs, Quips, and Squabbles

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There's an adage they give you when you receive your name badge at the door of Writer Land: "You only compete with yourself." While most authors hold true to this (at least in public), there are those who make time to spend bashing their fellow wordslingers. Here are ten cringe-worthy examples.

1. Mark Twain vs. Ambrose Bierce
When they asked Samuel Clemens to read and review long-time friend Ambrose Bierce's not-so-bestseller, Nuggets and Dust Panned Out in California by Dod Grile, publishers Chatto & Windus had no idea they'd get such a scathing report back. Twain calls Nuggets and Dust "the vilest book that exists in print" and ends with what might be the most simultaneously hilarious and hurtful review of all time:

"There is humor in Dod Grile, but for every laugh that is in his book there are five blushes, ten shudders and a vomit. The laugh is too expensive."

2. James Frey vs. Dave Eggers
Before his tearful apology on Oprah for passing off as a memoir his best-selling tale of addiction and redemption, and even before the book had been released, James Frey took aim at Dave Eggers and his much-hailed A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Here's what Frey said in an interview in New York Observer:

"The Eggers book pissed me off. Because a book that I thought was mediocre was being hailed as the best book written by the best writer of my generation. F**k that. And f**k him and f**k anybody who says that."

3. Ernest Hemingway vs. Ford Madox Ford.
In a letter sent to Ezra Pound in 1925, Papa Hemingway compares contemporary Ford Madox Ford to a bull in a less-than-complimentary tirade:

"Bulls at least are not the greatest stylists in English – no bull has ever been a political exile. Bulls don't run reviews. Bulls of 25 don't marry old women of 55 and expect to be invited to dinner... Bulls do not borrow money... Bulls are edible after they have been killed."

4. Stephen King vs. Stephenie Meyer
In early 2009, hot on the heels of the Twilight film's debut, Stephen King did an exclusive interview with USA Weekend in which he compared JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer:

"The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can't write worth a damn. She's not very good."

Teenage girls 'round the world used their collective angst to... um, buy more movie tickets, I guess.

5. Salman Rushdie vs. John Updike
Bad reviews make for some cranky authors. John Updike reviewed Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown in 2005. Updike took issue with Rushdie's recycling of the name Maximilian Ophuls for his main character (the real Ophuls was an actor and director in the 1940s and 50s). In response, Rushdie quipped:

"Well, why not? Somewhere in Las Vegas there's probably a male prostitute called 'John Updike'... He should stay in his parochial neighbourhood and write about wife-swapping, because it's what he can do."

6. Tom Wolfe vs. "The Three Stooges"
Norman Mailer, John Irving, and John Updike were all less than impressed with Tom Wolfe's 1998 novel, A Man in Full. They each voiced their various issues with the book in typical rival-author fashion, with Mailer comparing the work to "sex with a 300-pound woman," Irving calling the work "journalistic hyperbole described as fiction," and Updike giving what seems to be a diplomatic, if not positive, review with a piece in the New Yorker: "A Man in Full still amounts to entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form. Like a movie desperate to recoup its bankers' investment, the novel tries too hard to please us."

Wolfe wasted no time lashing back, claiming the three were "panicked" and "frightened," then compared them to slapstick comedians:

"I think of the three of them now – because there are now three – as Larry, Curly and Moe. It must gall them a bit that everyone – even them – is talking about me."

7. Mario Vargas Llosa vs. Gabriel García Márquez
Nobel laureates don't mess around. Before 1976, the two were close friends; García Márquez was the godfather and namesake for Vargas Llosa's second son. Then, at a movie premier in Mexico City, Vargas Llosa caught García Márquez in the eye with a nasty right hook on the red carpet. Though neither has officially commented on why, it is rumored that when Vargas Llosa cheated on his wife and moved to live with his mistress in Stockholm, she turned to García Márquez for "consolation" — and he advised her to divorce his friend. After the shiner incident, the two literary giants didn't speak for 31 years.

8. Oscar Wilde vs. George Meredith
In his essay, The Decay of Living, Wilde took aim at George Meredith's style, saying, "as a writer, he has mastered everything except language; as a novelist, he can do everything except tell a story; as an artist, he is everything except articulate... I would say that he is a child of realism who is not on speaking terms with his father."

9. Gore Vidal vs. Truman Capote
The two hyper-famous New York authors were once friends, but after their affection for one another wore off, neither wasted any time going for the throat. Vidal claimed to have sat on Capote at a party, mistaking him for a stool. Capote falsely said Vidal had been kicked out of the White House for insulting Jackie Kennedy's mother. Vidal claimed Capote had "raised lying to an art. A minor art." When asked about the friendship gone bad, Capote said, "I'm always sad about Gore—very sad that he has to breathe every day." The back-and-forth carried on after Capote's death, when Vidal got the last word:

"Capote I truly loathed. The way you might loathe an animal. A filthy animal that has found its way into the house."

10. Mary McCarthy vs. Lillian Hellman
No feudal arena is complete without a cat fight, and these two ladies did their best not to disappoint. As a guest on the Dick Cavett show, Mary McCarthy was asked with writers she considered overrated. Among the handful was Lillian Hellman, who McCarthy said was "tremendously overrated, a bad writer, a dishonest writer, but she really belongs to the past." When urged to explain her opinion, McCarthy offered this burning blow:

"[E]very word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"

Enter the lawsuit, a messy social tangle of writers taking sides, and, perhaps most bizarrely, Norman Mailer in his new role as mediator. Mailer urged Hellman to drop the lawsuit, but four years later she died before resolving or dropping the complaint.

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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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