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10 Rejection Letters Sent to Very Successful People

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We’ve all heard that the road to success is paved with failure. But that doesn’t make rejection any easier to swallow. What does help? Knowing that the world’s most talented people have been there, too. Here are 10 actual rejection letters that prove it.

1. U2

Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen, Jr., and Adam Clayton were just teenagers when they formed U2 in 1976. (Though they were originally known as The Larry Mullen Band, then Feedback, then The Hype.) By the fall of 1979, they had released their first single in Dublin, though it was with no thanks to London-based RSO Records, who had rejected the band’s submission in May of the same year. The reason, as briefly explained in a letter to the man sometimes known as Paul Hewson, was that it was “not suitable for us at present.” Within a year, U2 had signed with Island Records and released their first international single, “11 O’Clock Tick Tock.” Hmmm… wonder if they would be suitable for RSO now?

2. ANDY WARHOL

PAPERMAG

In 1956, Andy Warhol couldn’t give his work away. Yes, we mean that literally. On October 18th the artist received a letter from the Museum of Modern Art declining a drawing “which you so generously offered as a gift to the Museum.” Today, MoMA owns 168 of Warhol’s pieces.

3. SYLVIA PLATH

OpenCulture

At least Howard Moss, The New Yorker editor who (sort of) rejected Sylvia Plath’s Amnesiac, admitted that “Perhaps we’re being dense” in having trouble connecting the piece’s first and second sections.

4. MADONNA

PerezHilton.com

There’s no date on this rejection letter to Madonna’s team. But it must have been before she signed with Sire Records in 1982, a year before she released her first, self-titled album (which has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide).

5. KURT VONNEGUT

Letters of Note

Award-winning novelist Kurt Vonnegut took a certain amount of pride in being rejected. In 1949, he received a letter from Edward Weeks, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, who noted that two of the samples Vonnegut had sent the magazine “have drawn commendation although neither one is quite compelling enough for final acceptance.” A framed copy of the letter hangs in Indianapolis’ Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.

6. TIM BURTON

Letters of Note

As far as rejection goes, Tim Burton had it pretty easy. In 1976, while still a high-schooler, Burton sent a copy of his children’s book, The Giant Zlig, to Walt Disney Productions for publication consideration. Though it was rejected for being “too derivative of the Seuss works to be marketable,” editor T. Jeanette Kroger offered Burton some great—and mostly positive—feedback. A few years later, the company brought Burton on as an animator’s apprentice.

7. GERTRUDE STEIN

Anyone who has ever successfully managed to read the work of Gertrude Stein knows that her prose can be rather dense. Too dense for Arthur C. Fifield to even bother reading the full manuscript for The Making of Americans, which he declined—quite poetically—in 1912.

8. JIM LEE

Instagram

Today Jim Lee is one of the world’s best-known figures in the world of comic books; he’s an artist, a writer, and the co-publisher of DC Comics. But back in the mid-1980s, he was struggling to find his place in the industry, and being rejected by all of the major publishers, including the one he now runs (though a handwritten P.S. did tell him he had some interesting stuff and to keep at it). But his funniest rejection may have come from Marvel, when editor Eliot R. Brown told him “Your work looks as if it were done by four different people,” and suggests he “resubmit when your work is consistent and you have learned to draw hands.”

9. STIEG LARSSON

The Guardian

Though author Stieg Larsson didn’t live long enough to witness his own greatest success with the Millennium series, he did know the sting of rejection, beginning with his application to journalism school in Stockholm at the Joint Committee of Colleges of Journalism. In case you don’t speak Swedish, “This is a letter saying ‘you are not good enough to be a journalist’ to a man who went on to create a supremely creative, crusading magazine which fought against the worsening tide of extreme right thinking and activity in Sweden,” publisher Christopher MacLehose told The Guardian in 2011, right before the letter was auctioned off in London.  

10. HUNTER S. THOMPSON

Dangerous Minds

Okay, so this letter wasn’t a rejection of Hunter S. Thompson. It was a rejection letter sent by Hunter S. Thompson, to William McKeen, author of a 1991 biography of Thompson. The author at the heart of the story wasn’t a fan. After its publication, Thompson sent McKeen a handwritten review of the book, which McKeen framed.

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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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