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11 Book Burning Stories That Will Break Your Heart

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Recently, society has become more creative in the ways it shows displeasure for particular books, doing everything from banning them to using them as toilet paper. But the classic method is still a good old-fashioned book burning. Here are some of the worst, but a warning to all bibliophiles: reading this might hurt a little.

1. The Burying of Scholars

For over 500 years, Ancient China experienced a golden age of writing and ideas. Despite the various wars and power struggles from 770 to 221 BC, scholars managed to come up with some of the most fascinating philosophies of all times, including Confucianism and Taoism. Then, in 221 BC, the wars stopped, and all power was consolidated under Emperor Qin. Qin and his advisors didn’t trust the scholars, and, starting in 213 BC, ordered thousands of priceless books burned. All history books were destroyed so that Qin could write his own version where he came out looking the best. This carried on for three years, until Qin decided to bury over 1000 scholars alive in addition burning all their works. No one knows how much irreplaceable information was lost during this time.

2. Nalanda

For 600 years, Nalanda was one of the best universities in the world. Located in India, it attracted students from as far away as Greece who came to study in one of the greatest libraries the world had ever seen. It extended over three buildings that were up to nine stories high. The hundreds of thousands of books inside those buildings covered subjects as wide ranging as grammar, logic, literature, astrology, astronomy, and medicine. But many of the most precious texts were among the most important in Buddhism, and those religious tomes may have been what Bakhtiyar Khilji and his Muslim army were intent on destroying when they sacked the university in 1193. According to legend, there were so many books that they burned for three months. The loss of the religious texts effectively ended Buddhism as a major religion in India for hundreds of years.

3. “Heretical” Books

The Spanish Inquisition, especially under Tomas Torquemada, is famous for its use of torture to discipline people who were suspected of following the “wrong” religion. When they were burned at the stake, oftentimes any books they had that were not the Catholic Bible were burned with them. The Inquisition was especially on the lookout for any books written in Hebrew or Arabic. But Torquemada also arranged for book burning “festivals” where thousands of heretical volumes were destroyed and the atmosphere was like a party.

4. Maya Codices

Despite not actually having predicted the end of the world in 2012, the Maya were a relatively advanced civilization. By 100 BC they had a system of writing, and for the next 1400 years they recorded their history as well as astronomical observations and calendar calculations. Then the Spanish showed up. For three months in 1562, Spanish friars tried to Christianize the Maya through torture. In order that no one could ever return to the old ways, they also burned all samples of Mayan writing they could find. Said Bishop De Landa, "We found a large number of books in these [Mayan] characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction." Today only three of these works remain.

5. Glasney College

While not as famous for their ancient culture as Wales or Northern Ireland, the county of Cornwall in the southwest of England has a history rich in Celtic tradition. Cornish is actually its own language, and one of the main institutions keeping the language and culture alive was Glasney College. Founded in 1265, it was the center of Cornish scholarship, where students wrote books and plays in the old language, as well as studied the area’s unique history. Then in 1548, Henry VIII ordered the school looted and burned, along with its books. The university’s destruction effectively ended Cornish scholarship, and led to the sudden decline in the Cornish language, something that has only just been revived in the last century.

6. The Library of Congress

In 1800, President Adams decided that the new government needed a place to hold "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress." Thus the Library of Congress was born. Only 14 years later though, the Library, along with the White House and much of Washington, D.C., was burned to the ground by the invading British. Considering there were only 3000 books in the library at the time, this burning wasn’t the most terrible loss, but it led directly to a much worse one. Famously, Thomas Jefferson, who had the largest private library in America at the time at around 6500 volumes, offered to sell his collection to the government to replace what had been lost. The books were happily accepted and everything was great until 1851 when an accidental fire destroyed more than two-thirds of Jefferson’s collection and two-thirds of the Library’s total collection. So if the British had not burned down the Library in the first place, we might have far more of the president’s personal books still today.

7. Chinese Libraries

During World War II, it was policy for the Japanese military to destroy libraries. In fact, there are few wars in which you won’t find a major library destroyed; before the internet they were some of the only places to find written examples of a city or country’s culture and heritage, and therefore made very symbolic targets. But few armies destroyed as many libraries, or as many books, as the Japanese in China. They burned eight major libraries and their collections to the ground, resulting in the loss of millions of books.

8. Warsaw Libraries

One of the few armies to top the Japanese when it came to book burning was the Nazis. In one city alone, books were virtually wiped out. Warsaw suffered throughout the war, and by the end 14 of its libraries and all the books in them had been burned to the ground. The Germans were especially efficient at this because they had special troops called Verbrennungskommandos (Burning detachments) whose only job was to destroy buildings and what was inside them. By the end of the war, Poland had lost an estimated 16 million books and manuscripts, all because of the specific intent to wipe out Polish culture and history.

9. German Libraries

But the country that lost the most books during WWII was Germany. When the Allies started firebombing cities, they didn’t pay attention to centers of culture, including museums, universities, and libraries. Within months, 35 major libraries and dozens more small ones had gone up in flames. While the destruction was so great it is impossible to know how many books were destroyed, it is estimated at least one-third of all the books in the entire country had been converted to ash by the end of the war.

10. National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Founded in 1892, the National Library in Sarajevo eventually housed more than 1.5 million books. Over 150,000 of these were rare and irreplaceable manuscripts. After WWII, the library was able to find important books that had been scattered around the country and bring them together under one roof, along with almost a century’s worth of newspapers. Then on August 25, 1992, Serbian troops laying siege to Sarajevo started shelling the library. The walls crumbled and the books burned. Dozens of librarians and local citizens tried to rescue the books, and at least one of them was killed in the act, but it was all for nothing. Virtually every book was destroyed, making it the largest single book burning in history.

11. Timbuktu Manuscripts

Lest you think no large scale book burnings take place today, here’s one that happened just a few months ago. Islamist insurgents in Mali destroyed thousands of irreplaceable manuscripts in January 2013. As the French and Malian armies arrived in Timbuktu where the rebels were holed up, the insurgents set fire to numerous buildings, including two archives of precious manuscripts dating back to the 1200s. These documents, almost none of which had been digitized or recorded in any other way, covered the medieval history of Sub-Saharan Africa. Since that place and time period is understudied in academia, many of the books had never been translated and their information is lost forever. The mayor of the town said, “This is terrible news. The manuscripts were a part not only of Mali's heritage but the world's heritage. By destroying them they threaten the world.”

If you want some cheering up, check out Kathy’s humor book, Funerals to Die For.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]