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Estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry // Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2013 // Courtesy of the Morgan

11 Drafts of the Most Famous Phrase from The Little Prince

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Estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry // Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2013 // Courtesy of the Morgan

Fans of Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's novella about a pilot who crashes in the desert, where he encounters a young boy from distant planet B-612, can likely recite the book's most famous line, spoken by a fox to the boy, by heart: "What is essential is invisible to the eye." But Saint-Exupéry, who wrote the novel while in exile in New York City after the outbreak of World War II, didn't come by the phrase easily.

The manuscript of Le Petit Prince, which was acquired by the Morgan Library & Museum in 1968 and displayed at an exhibition there earlier this year, shows that he played around quite a bit with his most famous book's most famous line—and with the rest of the story, as well. "Saint-Exupéry was always revising and refining," says Christine Nelson, Drue Heinz Curator of Literary and Historical Manuscripts at the Morgan. "The Morgan manuscript reveals that he had a clear sense of the overall shape and tone of the story, but he rewrote and honed individual sentences and episodes. There's no way to know for sure why he made certain creative decisions—such as the final formulation of the 'essential' line—but we can see that certain versions read more gracefully."

Could you imagine the fox saying "Ce qui compte est toujours invisible" (What matters is always invisible) or "Le plus important est invisible" (What is most important is invisible)? Saint-Exupéry tried both of those, and many more. Nelson shared 11 other phrases that the author tried before finally choosing "l’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”

1. Mais ce qui compte est invisible.

"But what matters is invisible."

2. Mais l’essentiel est toujours invisible.

"But what is essential is always invisible."

3. Ce qui est important est toujours invisible.

"What is important is always invisible."

Photography by Graham S. Haber, courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum, New York; © Estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (left), Reynal & Hitchcock, 1943 (right).

4. Le plus important demeure invisible.

"What is most important remains invisible."

5. Ce qui est important ça ne se voit pas.

"What is important cannot be seen."

6. Ce qui compte ne se voit pas.

"What matters cannot be seen."

Photography by Graham S. Haber, courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum, New York; © Estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (left), Reynal & Hitchcock, 1943 (right).

7. Ce qui est tellement joli n’est pas pour les yeux.

"Something that lovely is not for the eyes."

8. Ce qui est important, ça ne se voit pas.

"What is important, that cannot be seen."

9. Ce qui se voit ça ne compte pas.

"What can be seen does not matter."

Photography by Graham S. Haber, courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum, New York; © Estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

10. L’important est toujours ailleurs.

"What is important is always somewhere else."

11. Ce qui est le plus important c’est ce qui ne se voit pas.

"What is most important is that which cannot be seen."

Saint-Exupéry finished The Little Prince in October 1942; it was published in the United States in early 1943, just as the author and pilot left the country to rejoin his squadron in Algiers. He gave the heavily edited manuscript to his friend Silvia Hamilton, whose black poodle had served as the model for the book's sheep (Saint-Exupéry also drew The Little Prince's illustrations).

Sadly, Saint-Exupéry didn't live to see what would become his most famous work published in his native country. He disappeared in July 1944 while performing a solo reconnaissance flight in a P-38 Lightning; his ID bracelet was brought up in a fisherman's net off the coast of Marseille in 1998.

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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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Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]