CLOSE
Original image
KALI CIESEMIER

A Brief History of "Choose Your Own Adventure"

Original image
KALI CIESEMIER

R.A. Montgomery, the original publisher and author of the Choose Your Own Adventure Series, passed away on November 9. He was 78 years old.

An an unproven assistant editor in her early twenties, Joëlle Delbourgo got an unwelcome message: Her boss at Bantam wanted to see her. Immediately.

It was 1978, and Delbourgo was championing a new children’s title called The Cave of Time. The book was something of an anomaly: It didn’t have a plot or a main character or even a proper ending. Instead, the reader was asked to assume the role of the hero. Every few pages, he or she had to make a critical decision on how to proceed. There were about 40 possible endings, with some paths leading to glory and others ending in alien invasion, tyrannosaurus attack, and other forms of ruin. Delbourgo hoped to make it her first major acquisition.

In fact, she hoped to pursue it as a series. But as a junior voice in the company, she had no idea how her higher-ups would respond to such an experimental project. As she stepped into the cavernous office of Oscar Dystel, Bantam’s president, anxiety struck.

“I understand you’re trying to change the way kids read,” he barked. She was. And she wasn’t alone.

AN ADVENTUROUS IDEA

A decade prior, a lawyer named Edward Packard had hit upon an idea. He often told his kids bedtime stories, and whenever he couldn’t figure out how to resolve a story, he asked them to weigh in with options. He soon realized that they enjoyed the stories more when they helped choose the endings.

This interactivity was a valuable storytelling device—it both harnessed the kids’ attention and took advantage of their innate creativity—and Packard wondered whether there was a clever way to package it in book form. During his commute, he began writing a shipwreck adventure called Sugarcane Island, with multiple storylines that required reader participation.

When, in 1969, he passed his finished copy along to a friend of a friend who worked as a William Morris literary agent, the feedback was glowing. “The agent said he would be surprised if there were no takers,” Packard recalls. “Then he proceeded to be surprised.”

Island collected dust until 1975, when Vermont Crossroads Press, a publisher looking for innovative children’s books, picked it up. The press was headed by R.A. Montgomery, a former high school teacher who saw the educational value in game structure. “Experiential learning is the most powerful way for kids, or for anyone, to learn something,” Montgomery says.

Montgomery published Sugarcane Island to a nice, albeit quiet, response, and he and Packard began to write more stories. But Vermont Crossroads didn’t have great distribution. “He was not equipped to saturate the market,” Packard says. Montgomery agreed. He passed the title to a young literary agent named Amy Berkower, who tried to pitch the books to numerous houses. “The only person responsive was Joëlle,” Berkower remembers.

“I got really excited,” says Delbourgo, who also worked in Bantam’s educational division. “I said, ‘Amy, this is revolutionary.’ This is precomputer, remember. The idea of interactive fiction, choosing an ending, was fresh and novel. It tapped into something very fundamental.”

But before Delbourgo could publish the book, she had to persuade her boss at Bantam to take a risk. Dystel was skeptical at first, but Delbourgo’s presentation was convincing. She believed in the product. “He wound up becoming my biggest supporter,” she says. The “Choose Your Own Adventure” series officially launched in 1979.

Montgomery and Packard were each contracted to write six books. The first title to be picked up by Bantam was Montgomery's Journey Under the Sea, about an expedition to Atlantis. Readers were confronted with seismic choices: “If you put up the energy repulsion shields to try and escape the black hole, turn to page 22!” To stoke attention, Bantam gave away thousands of copies, flooded book fairs, and created teaching guides for classrooms. The strategy worked. By 1981, Bantam had four million copies in print.

That same year, the young daughter of New York Times culture columnist Aljean Harmetz picked up a “Choose” book and couldn’t put it down. Intrigued, Harmetz wrote a piece that described the series as being “as contagious as chicken pox.” That’s when it exploded.

HITTING THE MAINSTREAM

To capitalize on the momentum, Bantam decided to roll out one title a month. In turning up the frequency to serial levels, the publisher hit upon another novelty that would prove irresistible. Because the books were numbered sequentially, kids started collecting them like trading cards. Years later, this savvy marketing technique would be applied to other series, including “The Baby-Sitters Club” and “Sweet Valley High.”

To keep pace with this grueling publication schedule, Packard and Montgomery—who worked separately—started subcontracting installments to other writers. (In years to come, bestselling authors like James Patterson and Tom Clancy would use this same formula, known as “packaging,” to keep up their production.) In 1981, Packard quit his law practice to write full time.

While the main “Choose” line featured a variety of adventures—Mayan exploration, deep-sea intrigue, run-ins with the abominable snowman—greater demand called for more and more spin-offs. Some, like the Star Wars and Disney tie-ins, were licensed merchandise. Others didn’t fare so well. “I tried some sports titles like 'Soccer Star' and 'Skateboard Master,' but they didn’t sell,” Packard says. Instead, he and his writers gravitated toward subjects that interested them: science, shipwrecks, African mountain gorillas.

As with most children’s trends, there was some hand-wringing over several of the more gruesome fates: Child psychologists questioned whether scary stories—say, getting sacrificed in a pagan ritual—made for reassuring bedtime reading. Packard laughed off the criticisms. “I remember getting ‘shot’ as a kid,” he says of playing cowboy. “Kids got it very quickly. You die, yes, but you take another choice and go on.”

CHOOSING TO RETIRE

By the late 1980s, the series was showing signs of exhaustion. Lackluster concepts like You Are a Shark were pushed through in the rush to keep the installments coming, and the number of possible endings in many titles dwindled. Early “Choose” books had dozens of endings; later entries saw as few as eight. Then, with the rise of video and computer games, which provided that same interactivity in an even more addictive format, “Choose”’s foothold in the market slipped. In 1999, after selling 250 million copies worldwide, the publisher retired the brand and let the trademark lapse.

And yet, nearly 35 years after its debut, “Choose Your Own Adventure” remains a publishing landmark. It preceded many of the long-running children’s series, like “Goosebumps,” and proved to skeptical parents that kids were still willing to crack open books. “The reading happened because kids were put in the driver’s seat. They were the mountain climber, they were the doctor, they were the deep-sea explorer,” says Montgomery. “They made choices, and so they read.”

By combining savvy marketing with an innate sense for the psychology of storytelling, Delbourgo had stumbled upon the formula for an enduring classic. At the time, the series’ success netted her a $2000 raise. (Eventually, she settled in as a literary agent.) But having a hand in birthing “Choose Your Own Adventure” held far greater rewards than Delbourgo could have anticipated. “I remember how I felt when I read the books and how excited I got, the clarity I had about them,” she says. “I couldn’t have imagined the incredible impact it had or how prescient it was.”

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Stephen Missal
crime
arrow
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
Original image
A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES