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14 Literary Settings Inspired by Real Places

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At the end of a good book, do you ever close the back cover, sigh, and think, “I wish I could be there”? Good news: in some cases, you can. While you’re probably never going to make it to Narnia or Hogwarts (I know - I’m disappointed, too), here are a handful of “fictional” places you can actually visit.

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1. Growing up in the midwest means a field trip to Hannibal, Missouri, to see Mark Twain’s old haunting grounds—it was the highlight of my sixth-grade year. Twain has said there was no better place for a boy to grow up than Hannibal and was thus inspired to use many of the area’s landmarks in his writing, especially The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. What was called McDougal Cave in the book is called Mark Twain Cave today - a trip inside will reveal many of the details you might remember from Tom Sawyer.

2. If you want to visit the fictional West Egg from The Great Gatsby, you need only to get yourself to Great Neck, New York, where F. Scott Fitzgerald lived with his wife Zelda for almost two years. It’s thought that he modeled Nick’s “modest” house on his own. In fact, their house is still there today, though I have to say - modest? Really? Maybe in comparison to Jay Gatsby’s...

3. Calling all Little House fans: DeSmet, South Dakota, may just be your next vacation location. Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up in the little pioneer town and took many of her series’ buildings, settings and locations straight from the roads of DeSmet. The Surveyors’ House from By the Shores of Silver Lake is still standing, and you can visit a reconstructed version of Laura’s own Little House. If you don’t think you’ll make it to S.D. anytime soon, never fear - there’s a virtual tour as well.

4. The New York Times wants to help you follow in Holden Caulfield’s footsteps - they’ve painstakingly recreated his route around the city, even though J.D. Salinger was often careful to create pseudonyms for places featured in Catcher in the Rye, especially hotels.

5. If I ever get to Portland, you can bet I’ll take a trip down Klickitat Street. That’s where Ramona Quimby grew up - and it’s not far from where her creator, Beverly Cleary, grew up.

6. Winnie-the-Pooh may not be real, but his home is. Charming Hundred-Acre Wood is based on a place in East Sussex, England, called Ashdown Forest. Many of the landmarks found in the A.A. Milne classics still exist there, including Poohsticks Bridge, Galleon’s Lap (called Gill’s Lap in real life), Roo’s Sandpit and Heffalump Trap. They even hold annual Poohsticks competitions there.

7. The House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Mass. - the oldest surviving mansion house in North America - inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel of the same name that was published in 1851. You can tour it and Hawthorne’s birthplace all for the same fee if you’re ever in Salem, though Hawthorne’s house was actually moved several blocks from the spot where it originally stood.

8. It’s thought that Seven Gables was a huge inspiration to H.P. Lovecraft, who in turn wrote his own tale of a spooky house based on one that really existed. Actually, Lovecraft’s The Shunned House was likely based on two abodes - a Providence, R.I., house Lovecraft’s aunt resided in, and a downright terrifying home in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Lovecraft once called it “a hellish place where night-black deeds must have been done in the early seventeen-hundreds — with a blackish unpainted surface, unnaturally steep roof, and an outside flight of stairs leading to the second story, suffocatingly embowered in a tangle of ivy so dense that one cannot but imagine it accursed or corpse-fed.” That house no longer stands today, but you can still check out the one in Providence, especially if you’re in the market - it’s for sale.

9. James Joyce once said that if Dublin somehow got wiped off the face of the map, you could rebuild it just by reading Ulysses and recreating all of the locations he mentions within its pages. Should you ever want to walk in Bloom’s footsteps, I’d make sure to do it on June 16 - that’s Bloomsday, when thousands of other Joyce fans gather in Dublin to retrace Leopold Bloom’s route.

10. Obviously Walden Pond, made famous by Henry David Thoreau, was never actually represented as a place of fiction, so maybe it doesn’t quite fit this list. But it’s still a location in a classic book that you can actually visit - never fear, it hasn’t been replaced by a parking lot or an apartment complex. Thoreau’s original cabin no longer stands, but you can step into a replica of it and you can see where the real thing once stood.

11. Back in Washington Irving’s time, Sleepy Hollow was known as North Tarrytown, New York. It’s a quaint little town, but I bet you still get the chills when you see the bridge that Irving imagined his Headless Horseman thundering across.

12. Hotels are great settings for mysteries and thrillers - just ask Stephen King. If you ever want to feel like you’re living in pages written by Agatha Christie, just book a room at the Imperial Hotel in Torquay, England. Christie stayed there often and just barely bothered to disguise it as “The Majestic Hotel” in at least three books: Peril at End House, The Body in the Library and Sleeping Murder.

13. I doubt any other little pub has ever inspired as many authors as The Spaniards Inn in London has. The Inn claims that Keats was listening to the birds in the inn’s attached garden when he decided to write “Ode to a Nightingale.” Bram Stroker name-drops the Inn in Dracula, and finally, Charles Dickens set an entire scene of The Pickwick Papers in the inn.

14. It’s hard to say which exact island inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to pick up a pen and write about Jim Hawkins and Treasure Island, but there’s no shortage of theories. Some day Stevenson’s uncle was a seaman who told him detailed stories of Norman Island in the Virgin Islands. It’s also been noted that he visited Brielle, New Jersey, in 1888 and was so taken with a small island on the river that he carved his initials there. Today, it’s called Nienstedt Island. Lastly, Stevenson’s map looks a bit like Scotland’s isle of Unst. Unst makes the official claim to fame, saying that Stevenson wrote Treasure Island after visiting the lighthouse his uncles, David and Thomas Stevenson, built there.

Honorable Mention: Though you can’t actually visit this place these days, at one time, the White City of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago really did exist. And it really did inspire L. Frank Baum to write about a similar venue, though it was a slightly different color: Emerald.

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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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