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The Quick 10: A Christmas Carol

It was 168 years ago this week that Tiny Tim and Ebeneezer Scrooge made their debut. In 1843, Charles Dickens’ Christmas classic was published in England. Despite the fact that it's been around for ages, there are a few things you might not know about A Christmas Carol:

1. A Christmas Carol must hold some sort of record for being the fastest classic tale ever written. Dickens started writing in October of 1843 and finished up before December. He left enough time for illustrator John Leech to do his thing and then it was printed, published and on bookshelves by December 17.

2. Based on notes from Dickens' original manuscript, Tiny Tim was almost Little Fred. Dickens scholars think "Fred" was a reference to Dickens’s younger brother Frederick, another brother named Alfred who died relatively young, and a sickly nephew. He ended up using the name for Scrooge's nephew instead.

3. When Dickens’ publishers were unimpressed with his idea for a short holiday novella, Charles decided to take matters into his own hands. He arranged the whole publishing process himself, from editing to printing, binding and advertising. He kept the price low so the masses could afford it. His finances suffered as a result: Dickens had expected to make about £1,000 from the first printing but ended up barely clearing £137. Though the book was a hit, the price was just too good to turn a profit.

4. Spoiler alert - that is, if a 168-year-old book has spoilers (This just in: Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet get married) - Tiny Tim dies. At least, he does in the version of What May Come to Pass presented by the Ghost of Christmas Future. The scene is so very sad that a critic at a public reading of the story in 1868 commented that his death "brought out so many pocket handkerchiefs that it looked as if a snow-storm had somehow gotten into the hall without tickets."

5. The next time you wonder why we say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Christmas,” think of Charles Dickens. Though “merry” was in use in the 1800s, Dickens’ repeated use of the phrase in the book really popularized it. The story was such a smash hit that the greeting became standard.

6. If you’ve ever been inspired to go out and do good deeds after enjoying A Christmas Carol, well, you’re in good company. In 1874, Robert Louis Stevenson read the book and wrote to a friend, “I want to go out and comfort someone; I shall never listen to the nonsense they tell one about not giving money - I shall give money; not that I haven’t done so always, but I shall do it with a high hand now.”

7. Since that original publishing that Dickens managed to scrape together by himself, A Christmas Carol has never been out of print.

8. We’re never officially told what Tiny Tim’s illness was. Time magazine speculated that it may have been distal renal tubular acidosis, a type of kidney failure; another theory is that the little lad had rickets due to his lack of Vitamin D.

9. Both Dickens and Washington Irving shared an idealistic view of Christmas and mutually admired one another. I wonder how they would feel about “A Sleepy Hollow Christmas Carol.

10. Even great leaders thought A Christmas Carol contained some lessons worth sharing. In a speech he gave just three days before his assassination, JFK quoted a passage from the story:

“I hope it is not rushing the season to recall to you the passage from Dickens' 'Christmas Carol' in which Ebenezer Scrooge is terrified by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley, and Scrooge, appalled by Marley's story of ceaseless wandering, cries out, 'But you were always a good man of business, Jacob.' And the ghost of Marley, his legs bound by a chain of ledger books and cash boxes, replies, 'Business? Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business. Charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.’

"Members and guests of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, whether we work in the White House or the State House or in a house of industry or commerce, mankind is our business. And if we work in harmony, if we understand the problems of each other, and the responsibilities that each of us bears, then surely the business of mankind will prosper.

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An AI Program Wrote Harry Potter Fan Fiction—and the Results Are Hilarious
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Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

“The castle ground snarled with a wave of magically magnified wind.”

So begins the 13th chapter of the latest Harry Potter installment, a text called Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash. OK, so it’s not a J.K. Rowling original—it was written by artificial intelligence. As The Verge explains, the computer-science whizzes at Botnik Studios created this three-page work of fan fiction after training an algorithm on the text of all seven Harry Potter books.

The short chapter was made with the help of a predictive text algorithm designed to churn out phrases similar in style and content to what you’d find in one of the Harry Potter novels it "read." The story isn’t totally nonsensical, though. Twenty human editors chose which AI-generated suggestions to put into the chapter, wrangling the predictive text into a linear(ish) tale.

While magnified wind doesn’t seem so crazy for the Harry Potter universe, the text immediately takes a turn for the absurd after that first sentence. Ron starts doing a “frenzied tap dance,” and then he eats Hermione’s family. And that’s just on the first page. Harry and his friends spy on Death Eaters and tussle with Voldemort—all very spot-on Rowling plot points—but then Harry dips Hermione in hot sauce, and “several long pumpkins” fall out of Professor McGonagall.

Some parts are far more simplistic than Rowling would write them, but aren’t exactly wrong with regards to the Harry Potter universe. Like: “Magic: it was something Harry Potter thought was very good.” Indeed he does!

It ends with another bit of prose that’s not exactly Rowling’s style, but it’s certainly an accurate analysis of the main current that runs throughout all the Harry Potter books. It reads: “‘I’m Harry Potter,’ Harry began yelling. ‘The dark arts better be worried, oh boy!’”

Harry Potter isn’t the only work of fiction that Jamie Brew—a former head writer for ClickHole and the creator of Botnik’s predictive keyboard—and other Botnik writers have turned their attention to. Botnik has previously created AI-generated scripts for TV shows like The X-Files and Scrubs, among other ridiculous machine-written parodies.

To delve into all the magical fiction that Botnik users have dreamed up, follow the studio on Twitter.

[h/t The Verge]

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Vivid Imagery Makes Poetry More Pleasurable, According to Psychologists
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Contrary to what English teachers led us to believe, most readers don’t judge poetry based on factors like alliteration and rhyme. In fact, a new study published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts suggests that vivid imagery (i.e. sense-evoking description) is what makes a poem compelling, according to Smithsonian.

To determine why some poetic works are aesthetically pleasing while others are less so, researchers from New York University and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany, had more than 400 online volunteers read and rate 111 haikus and 16 sonnets. Participants answered questions about each one, including how vivid its imagery was, whether it was relaxing or stimulating, how aesthetically pleasing they found it, and whether its content was positive or negative.

Not surprisingly, taste varied among subjects. But researchers did find, overall, that poems containing colorful imagery were typically perceived as more pleasurable. (For example, one favorite work among subjects described flowers as blooming and spreading like fire.) Emotional valence—a poem's emotional impact—also played a smaller role, with readers ranking positive poems as more appealing than negative ones. Poems that received low rankings were typically negative, and lacked vivid imagery.

Researchers think that vivid poems might also be more interesting ones, which could explain their popularity in this particular study. In the future, they hope to use similar methodology to investigate factors that might influence our enjoyment of music, literature, and movies.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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