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One for the Books: 8 Literary Lawsuits

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You can't judge a book by its cover. Sometimes you need an actual court of law.

1. Harper Lee v. Samuel Pinkus

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch takes on a case he knows he'll lose and explains to Scout, "Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.” Now 87-year-old author Harper Lee's fighting her own courtroom battle and hoping justice is on her side. Lee claims she was duped into signing over her only novel's copyright to her literary agent, Samuel Pinkus, after suffering from a stroke in 2007. She regained rights last year and is now suing Pinkus for the royalties he's still collecting. Our biggest piece of legal advice: Ask yourself, WWAFD?

2. Darla Yoos, Edwin McCall, and Kerry Levine v. PublishAmerica

Struggling with ideas is only one form of writer's block. What happens when you can't get your published book read? In June 2012, three authors filed a class action lawsuit against print-on-demand book company PublishAmerica, citing deceptive trade practices. The plaintiffs claim the Maryland-based publisher is a vanity press, yet "presents itself as a traditional publisher." In addition to misrepresenting services and not promoting book sales, the lawsuit claims that published books are full of errors that PublishAmerica will only correct if the authors pay for it out of pocket. That's enough to make any book lover sic.

3. Ablene Cooper v. Kathryn Stockett

In The Help, a young journalist writes a book about the racism faced by black maids working for white families in the early 1960s. Author Kathryn Stockett's 2009 novel and 2011 film weren't as groundbreaking as her character's fictional reporting, but they were still controversial. Stockett even said some people in Jackson, Mississippi, were upset at her. One of them is Ablene Cooper, a 60-year-old maid who claims the character Aibileen Clark is an unpermitted appropriation of her name and image. She's suing Stockett for $75,000 in damages. And here's where things get downright literary: Cooper just happens to be the maid for Stockett's older brother and sister-in-law. Is life imitating art, or is it the other way around?

4. Faulkner Literary Rights LLC v. Sony

Critics and audiences alike delighted in the fictional portrayals of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and other Jazz Age writers in Woody Allen's romantic comedy fantasy Midnight in Paris. William Faulkner, on the other hand, started penning his latest novel, As I Lay Suing. Well, his estate did on his behalf. In 2012, Faulkner Literary Rights, LLC sued Sony for copyright infringement, claiming that the studio didn't get permission for the character Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) to paraphrase Faulkner. The offending lines from the movie script: "The past is not dead! Actually, it's not even past. You know who said that? Faulkner. And he was right. And I met him, too. I ran into him at a dinner party.” The actual lines by Faulkner in Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Sony defended the quote as fair use and called the lawsuit frivolous.

5. Charles Harris v. Oprah

An endorsement from the Almighty Oprah can launch a career. Charles Harris was hoping for just that when he sent a pamphlet he wrote called "How America Elects Her Presidents" to the talk show host in 2008. Alas, he never got a chance to sit on Oprah's couch. But Harris did visit his lawyer's office when Oprah repeated a question from his pamphlet in a segment about kids who know presidential trivia. Oprah's legal team proved that only one question just happened to be asked exactly as it was written in Harris's pamphlet. The $100 million lawsuit was dismissed when the judge ruled that presidential trivia is not copyrightable. Where would mental_floss be if it was?

6. Michelle Reinhart and Jean Price v. Greg Mortenson

Ever want your money back when a book doesn't live up to the hype? If author fraud and racketeering are involved, you might have a case. Two Democratic lawmakers from Montana filed a class action lawsuit against Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, after reports that charitable works in the best-selling non-fiction book were fabricated. The book has sold over four million copies since 2006, with proceeds going to Mortenson's Central Asia Institute. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, but that's not always how the story goes. In 2007, Random House settled a class action lawsuit over James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, paying nearly $30,000 in reader refunds to people who bought the book before the author admitted it was fictionalized.

7. J.D. Salinger v. John David California

We all know that J.D. Salinger grew up to be a crotchety and litigious recluse. But how would his most famous character, Holden Caulfield, have turned out? In 2009, a Swedish author named Fredrik Colting (nom de plume: John David California), imagined Caulfield escaping from a New York City retirement home in a sequel called 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye. And faster than you can say "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," Salinger sued him. The lawsuit claimed that the sequel was neither a parody nor did it comment on the original work. There was even a question of whether Holden Caulfield might be a copyrightable character. The lawsuit was eventually settled in 2011 when Colting agreed not to sell the book in the U.S. or Canada until The Catcher in the Rye enters the public domain. Colting also had to change the title and any plans to dedicate the book to J.D. Salinger.

8. Patrick White v. Jay-Z

Jay-Z's got 99 problems, but this lawsuit ain't one. In June 2012, a man named Patrick White claimed that writing saved on his stolen laptop was later plagiarized in the 2010 book Decoded, a collection of Jay-Z lyrics and some of the stories behind them. The problem: Everyone knows Jay-Z wrote these rhymes. White still sued for copyright infringement and invasion of private property, as well as some cold cash money from book sales. Good luck with that, son.

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technology
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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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