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How 8 Famous Writers Chose Their Pen Names

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Scottish author Iain Banks died earlier this week after battling gall bladder cancer. With him died his nom de plume Iain M. Banks, under which he wrote science fiction. I admit I’m not familiar with the work Banks wrote under either name, and when I heard the news, I initially thought it weird that two writers with such similar names died on the same day. I wasn’t alone, and my Twitter feed was soon littered with realizations from others that they were the same guy. 

Some pen names are fairly well-known for what they are. Most people know that Mark Twain was the alias of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The outing of Richard Bachman as a pen name used by Stephen King was well-publicized and inspired King’s novel, The Dark Half. Some pen names you don’t see coming, though, and assume the name on the book cover is the real deal. Here, eight that threw me for a loop when I first heard about them. 

1. Lewis Carroll

While Lewis Carroll might sound delightfully British to American ears, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson is even more so. Dodgson adopted his pen name in 1856 because, according to the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, he was modest and wanted to maintain the privacy of his personal life. When letters addressed to Carroll arrived at Dodgson’s offices at Oxford, he would refuse them to maintain deniability. Dodgson came up with the alias by Latinizing Charles Lutwidge into Carolus Ludovicus, loosely Anglicizing that into Carroll Lewis and then changing their order. It was chosen by his publisher from a list of several possible pen names. 

2. Joseph Conrad

Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski is a bit of a mouthful, and when the Polish novelist began publishing his writing in the late 1800s he used an Anglicized version of his name: Joseph Conrad. He caught some flack for this from Polish intellectuals who thought he was disrespecting his homeland and heritage (it didn’t help that he became a British citizen and published in English), but Korzeniowski explained, “It is widely known that I am a Pole and that Józef Konrad are my two Christian names, the latter being used be me as a surname so that foreign mouths should not distort my real surname… It does not seem to me that I have been unfaithful to my country by having proved to the English that a gentleman from the Ukraine [Korzeniowski was an ethnic Pole born in formerly Polish territory that was controlled by Ukraine, and later the Russian Empire] can be as good a sailor as they, and has something to tell them in their own language.”

3. Pablo Neruda

Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto (another mouthful) had an interest in literature from a young age, but his father disapproved. When Basoalto began publishing his own poetry, he needed a byline that wouldn’t tip off his father, and chose Pablo Neruda in homage to the Czech poet Jan Neruda. Basoalto later adopted his pen name as his legal name. 

4. Stan Lee

Stanley Martin Lieber got his start writing comic books, but hoped to one day graduate to more serious literary work and wanted to save his real name for that. He wrote the kids’ stuff under the pen name Stan Lee and eventually took it as his legal name after achieving worldwide recognition as a comic book writer. 

5. Ann Landers

Ann Landers was the pseudonym for several women who wrote the column over the years. The name was created by the column’s original author, Ruth Crowley, who adopted it because she was already writing a newspaper column about child care and didn’t want readers confusing the two. She borrowed the name from a friend of her family, Bill Landers, and made an effort to keep her real identity a secret. 

6. Voltaire

When François-Marie Arouet was imprisoned in the Bastille in the early 1700s, he wrote a play. To signify his breaking away from his past, especially his family, he signed the work with the alias Voltaire. The name, the Voltaire Foundation explains, was derived from “Arouet, the younger.” He took his family name and the initial letters of le jeune—“Arouet l(e) j(eune)”—and anagrammed them. If you’re left scratching your head, the foundation helpfully points out that I and j, and u and v, were typographically interchangeable in Voltaire’s day.

7. George Orwell

When Eric Arthur Blair was getting ready to publish his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, he decided to use a pen name so his family wouldn’t be embarrassed by his time in poverty. He chose the name George Orwell to reflect his love of English tradition and landscape. George is the patron saint of England and the River Orwell, a popular sailing spot, was a place he loved to visit. 

8. J.K. Rowling

Joanne Rowling’s publishers weren’t sure that the intended readers of the Harry Potter books—pre-adolescent boys—would would read stories about wizards written by a woman, so they asked her to use her initials on the book instead of her full name. Rowling didn’t have a middle name, though, and had to borrow one from her grandmother Kathleen to get her pen name J.K. Rowling.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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