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5 Famous Books That Were Originally Self-Published

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Wikimedia Commons

The reputation of self-publishing—at least in the pre-internet era—wasn’t that great. There’s a reason that publishing houses catering to non-professional writers were called “vanity presses.” Your stereotypical self-published author was a little old lady with a briefcase full of messy manuscript pages, paying thousands of dollars to produce a poorly proofread doorstop that no one read.

And yet some of the greatest creators of all time have ponied up their own cash to see their works in print. Why? Let’s find out.

1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843)

Under intense stress (a mortgage payment was due and his wife was expecting), the iconic British author wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks. But he was frustrated with his publishers, Chapman and Hall, over poor sales of his most recent book, Martin Chuzzlewit, and decided to pay them to print the book—with proceeds going directly to him. Production problems plagued the book, and the whole process cost Dickens more than he expected. Even though the first printing sold out, he only made £137 of an anticipated  £1,000.

2. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1855)

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This quintessentially American author didn’t just pay to publish the first edition of Leaves of Grass, his defining poetry collection. He also helped set the type. That first edition was only sold in two stores—one in New York and one in Brooklyn. Several more editions followed, adding many more poems (that first version contained only 12 poems, no titles, and no author’s credit).

3. The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer (1931)

Newly widowed and staring the Great Depression in the face, Irma Rombauer zigged where others may have zagged. Rather than hunkering down and attempting to survive on some $6000 in savings, she instead put together a collection of recipes. She titled it The Joy of Cooking and had her daughter create a baffling cover illustration (apparently the dragon being slain represents pointless toil in the kitchen). And she spent virtually all of that $6000 to publish the book. Sales of that first edition carried her along until a substantially reworked version was issued by Bobbs-Merrill in 1936 and entered the American mainstream.

4. 114 Songs by Charles Ives (1922)

Ives, a pathbreaking composer (and insurance executive) had no natural place in the sedate world of early 20th-century classical music. But his business success allowed him to compose whatever he wanted, and whenever he saw fit—until the muse deserted him in the early 1920s. As a way to explain himself (and possibly get some performances), he summed up his creative life with this self-published volume. By the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, he was all the rage.

5. Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust (1913)

The Remembrances of Things Past author found no takers for the first volume of his autobiographical masterwork. As a matter of fact, the rejections were stinging: ”My dear fellow, I may be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can’t see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep,” read one. Proust had money, though, and paid publisher Editions Grasset to print the book. After the first volume was issued, Nobel Prize-winning writer and editor Andre Gide, who had rejected it, saw the error of his ways and published further volumes

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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]