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University of Virginia Library Special Collections

A Crudely Drawn Penis Almost Derailed Huck Finn

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University of Virginia Library Special Collections

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is about as American as it gets. Funny, then, that the book was released in England well before it hit shelves in the U.S. Funny, except to author Mark Twain, whose greatest work was almost derailed by a strange prank.

Twain was unhappy with the way he and his previous books had been handled by publishers. Royalties went unpaid. Release dates were pushed back. The books weren’t sufficiently promoted. He decided that for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he’d start his own publishing house and put the book out himself.

In 1884, he founded Charles L. Webster and Company, named for his business agent, who was made the company’s director. Twain borrowed an idea from an old publisher for his venture: subscription-based sales. Instead of selling copies of the book to stores and letting them sell them to the public, a small army of salesmen employed by Webster and Company would sell the book door-to-door. Armed with a sales prospectus and an advance copy of the book containing sample pages, the sales agents would show off the book to consumers and then get them to “subscribe,” or sign an agreement to pay for a copy of the book when it was later delivered to their home.

The illustrated first edition of Huck Finn was supposed to be released in late 1884, just in time for the Christmas shopping season. Twain had hand-picked E.W. Kemble to do the illustrations, and looked at the drawings several times during the book’s production. There was a delay after the illustrations for the first twelve chapters were done, when Twain reviewed them and rejected a few. He complained to Webster that some of “the people in these pictures are forbidding and repulsive…An artist shouldn’t follow the book too literally, perhaps - if this is the necessary result.”

The next set of illustrations Twain saw, for chapters 13-30, were more well-received. “This batch of pictures is most rattling good,” he admitted. “They please me exceedingly.”

Again, though, there was a hitch. Twain asked that one of the drawings, which depicted “the King” kissing a girl at the camp meeting in Chapter 20, be removed.

“It is powerful good, but it musn’t go in,” he explained to Webster. “Let’s not make any pictures of the camp meeting. The subject wouldn’t bear illustrating. It is a disgusting thing and the pictures are sure to tell the truth about it too plainly.”

Finally, Twain was happy with all the drawings and the book went to press. The first run was being printed, and advance copies were already out being shown to potential customers, when Webster got a panicked letter from a salesman in Chicago. When the salesman cracked open his sample of the book, he found that someone - maybe a mischievous printer, or one frustrated with delays; maybe Kemble taking revenge for the rejected drawings - had made a last-minute addition to one of the illustration printing plates.

In a picture of Uncle Silas speaking to a young boy while Aunt Sally looks on with a smile, Silas sports a crudely drawn penis, or at least a shadowy bulge in his pants.

Draw Again

There are various versions of the events that followed. One says that only 3,000 advance copies were already made, and only 250 had been sent out. Another says that some 30,000 copies had been printed and were awaiting shipment when Uncle Silas’ exposure was discovered.

Either way, Twain and Webster had a fit, and printed copies with the Silas illustration were ruthlessly hunted down and either destroyed or sent back to the company to be fixed. Meanwhile, Webster had to stop the printing operation, take out the offending plate, have a new one made and put in, and then restart printing to fix the existing books and finish the run, causing weeks of delay in publication. The recall and overhaul meant that the American edition of the book wasn’t released until well after Christmas, in February 1885.

Missing out on Christmas shopping didn’t dent the book’s sales too badly, though. Twain had spent the summer and fall running a publicity campaign that included a lecture tour where he read excerpts from the novel, and news reports about the obscene illustration helped publicize the book in the U.S. and fuel interest in it.

Only a few copies of the complete first edition with the picture of an exposed Uncle Silas are reported to exist, and can command tens of thousands of dollars on the rare book market. That Twain was set back by a prank that would later go on to become a valued collector’s item seems in the spirit of his work, something you’d like to think he came to appreciate, or wish he'd thought of himself.

Book image credit: Hulton Archive

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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