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The Classics, Recoded

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We learn a lot from playing with what already exists. Hunter S. Thompson—who himself is now one of the most frequently emulated writers of his disillusioned time—created an exercise for himself based on this notion. Early in his career, Thompson would pound out entire pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby on his typewriter, word for word, straight from the book, in order to understand what it felt like to write what he considered to be a true masterpiece.

The following works weren’t undertaken for the private enrichment of their creators, but they all depend on the preservation of the words of their source material or medium, and allow no room for the creator to use their own. Unlike Igor Stravinsky, who created the score for his ballet Pulcinella [PDF] by editing the scores of other composers, the creators of these projects could make no embellishments of their own. What they did instead was translate the work from one medium to another. Kind of like that Monty Python sketch about an all-semaphore version of Wuthering Heights. Enough illustrative examples? Great, let’s get going.

1. Classics in Video Games

Classic literature and video games aren’t distant acquaintances. In 2010, a video game version of Dante’s Inferno was released for XBox and PS3. A number of Nintendo games based on literature have already been profiled here on mental_floss. “Stride & Prejudice,” however, is a little different. Yes, it’s another adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which is at this point must be among the most exhaustively reimagined works in the Western canon. But there are no zombies here, there are no changes to the text—in fact, there’s barely anything on the screen but the text. It’s simply an endless runner game, in which a little Elizabeth Bennet avatar runs over each sentence of the novel.

The guiding principle is that, spurred by the need to win that’s embedded in human nature, readers are compelled to finish a book that they may otherwise not feel so doggedly set on completing. Reading and playing should become a merged activity, in which the mechanical actions of playing eventually become secondary to the reading itself. The Independent’s Ryan Vogt described the experience of having to tap the screen to keep Elizabeth in motion as similar to the unconscious action of turning a page. Will there be more of these literary endless runner games to come? The creator of "Stride and Prejudice," Carla Engelbrecht Fisher, is entertaining the possibility.

2. Classics in Barcodes

Have you ever wanted to read a book by scanning a QR code? Barcodes2Books has been transforming classic novels like Pride and Prejudice, The Time Machine, and War and Peace into hundreds of scannable QR codes. The team behind Barcodes2Books is composed of archivists who are serious about preservation and accessibility. While it’s not as convenient as, say, an e-reader, there are many possibilities for this method of sharing text that have yet to be exhausted. Having the code to a book at your fingertips certainly feels like what bookish kids imagined when they pictured the future.

3. Classics in License Plates

In his book Pl8Spk, Daniel Nussbaum recreated several works of classic literature using only vanity plates licensed in the state of California. The biggest hit of the collection was his reimagining of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

ONCEPON ATIME LONG AGO IN THEBES IMKING. OEDIPUS DAKING. LVMYMRS. LVMYKIDS. THEBENS THINK OEDDY ISCOOL. NOPROBS.

OKAY MAYBE THEREZZ 1LTL1. MOTHER WHERERU? WHEREAT MYDAD? NOCALLZ NEVER. HAVENOT ACLUE. INMYMND IWNDER WHOAMI? IMUST FINDEM.

JO MYWIFE GOES, “OED DON’T USEE? WERHAPPI NOW LETITB.” IGO, “NOWAY. IAMBOSS. DONTU TELLME MYLIFE. INEED MYMOM. II WILLL FINDHER. FIND BOTHOF THEM.”

SOI START SEEKING DATRUTH ABOUT WHO IAM. ITGOEZ ULTRAAA SLOWE. THE SPHYNXS RIDDLE WAS ACINCH BUT NOTTHIZ.

SUDNLEE WEHEAR SHOCKING NEWS. WHEN IWASA TINY1 THISGR8 4SEER SED IWOOD OFF MY ROYAL OLDMAN THEN MARREE MYMAMA. SICKO RUBBISH, NESTPAS? WHOWHO COUDBE SOGONE? STIL MOMNDAD SENT MEEEEE AWAY. MEE ABABI AWAAAY.

NOWWWWW GETTHIZ. MANY MOONS GOBY. IMEET THISGUY ONATRIP. WEDOO RUMBLE. WHOKNEW? ILEFTMY POP ONE DEDMAN.

UGET DAFOTO. MAJOR TSURIS. JOJO MYHONEE, MYSQEEZ, MYLAMBY, MIAMOR, MYCUTEE, JOJOY IZZ MYMOMMY.

EGODS WHYMEE? YMEYYME? LIFSUX. IAMBAD, IAMBADD, IMSOBAD. STOPNOW THISS HEDAKE. FLESH DUZ STINK. ITZ 2MUCH PAYNE 4ONE2C. TAKEGOD MYEYES! AIEEEEE!

I’d be interested to know who has a vanity plate that says “MYMOM.”

4. Classics in Punchcards

Punchcards date back to the turn of the 19th century, when they were used to direct the operations of textile looms. They were also used to control fairground organs and other such machines which automatically perform a set function. When early computers came around, the punchcard became the primary method of information storage and sharing. On these cards, each punched hole represents an individual piece or bit of data. From the 1930s to the 1950s, cards like these, manufactured by IBM with distinctive rectangular holes, were the building blocks of computing. Even after they stopped being essential to the function of computers, these cards still found use in different ways. According to IBM,

Beyond accounting purposes, the card had other uses in IBM. Until the early 1990s—long after IBM had ceased selling the punched cards for data processing—it was common practice for IBMers to use them for speaker notes for presentations, as they fit comfortably in the inside pocket of a suit jacket. Secretaries, too, used these cards for transcribing phone messages and typing driving directions. Even IBM executives routinely carried them around with their calendar for the day typed on them.

Today, the site Kloth.net allows users to create their own digital images of personalized punchcards. You type in the text you’d like translated into holes, and you’re given a neat little card like the one I’ve made above. Naturally, this service has been turned to the ends of literary play. The Ptak Science Books blog has a collection of punchcards created to translate the opening lines of classic books into computer code. As the Kloth.net service is free and open for use by anyone, you can get in on it too.

5. Classics in Tweets

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These days, when you’ve actually read James Joyce’s massive magnum opus Ulysses, you probably want to celebrate the achievement. At the time of the novel’s publication, however, you wouldn’t have been able to have a public festival in honor of your mutual appreciation. Joyce’s novel was met with censorship and public horror until well after 1933, when the United States Supreme Court lifted the ban on its sale and importation.

Ulysses actually had its beginnings in fragments. Ezra Pound arranged to serialize the novel as it was written, first in the English journal The Egoist and later, when printers refused to continue printing it after the first four installments, in the New York City magazine The Little Review in 1918. After the publication of the episode “Lestrygonians,” the Postal Authorities refused to distribute the journal and began to confiscate copies of it.

With backlash against subsequent installments in the magazine mounting to a trial against its founders, The Little Review eventually stopped publishing episodes of Ulysses. Without the constraints of length and censorship to consider going forward, Joyce was able to experiment with styles that are not explored in the earlier, serialized chapters of the book. Ultimately, the failure of the serialization of Ulysses led to the enrichment of the text as a whole. You can see copies of The Little Review here, at the Modernist Journals Project.

In 2011, fans of Ulysses, in effect, serialized Ulysses all over again as part of their celebration of Bloomsday (June 16), which is the day set aside by readers in honor of the character Leonard Bloom. A group of volunteers worked together to break the book, which is about 800 pages long, into smaller sections, which were in turn broken into even smaller, 140 character pieces, which were in turn tweeted in a 24-hour period known as the Bloomsday Burst. While the tweets are no longer up on Twitter, the text can be found in installments on the page created for the Herculean effort. Note that these tweets weren’t arbitrarily portioned out; they were separated into pieces based on narrative continuity and the preservation of great phrases.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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