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15 Facts About Slaughterhouse-Five

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Based on his experiences as a POW during the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five is (rightfully) considered a modern literary masterpiece. It propelled Vonnegut, who had been largely ignored and classified as a sci-fi paperback writer, to fame and literary acclaim.

The novel follows Billy Pilgrim, a man who has become "unstuck in time," and weaves together different periods of his life—his time as a hapless soldier, his post-war optometry career, and a foray in an alien zoo where he served as an exhibit—with humor and profundity. "The dominant theme of what I have written during the past forty-five years or so,” Vonnegut wrote in 1994, “is the inhumanity of many of man’s inventions to man.”

Here are 15 things you may not have known about this 1969 classic (not that the dates matter to Tralfamadorians):

1. After repeated and failed attempts to start his "Dresden book," Vonnegut finally began what would become Slaughterhouse-Five during a two-year teaching stint at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He had stopped writing fiction and was in a considerable funk when he accepted the invitation, offered by his former editor George Starbuck who was a full-time professor of English at the university.

2. He credits the program for rekindling his love of literature. "At Iowa I was suddenly friends with Nelson Algren and Jose Donoso and Vance Bourjaily and Donald Justice...and was amazed. Suddenly writing seemed very important again. This was better than a transplant of monkey glands for a man my age." He also became friends with Richard Yates while there, and some of his students included Gail Godwin, John Irving, Jonathan Penner, Bruce Dobler, John Casey, and Jane Casey.

3. Impressed by the book reviews Vonnegut wrote during his hiatus from fiction, publisher Seymour Lawrence offered Vonnegut a $25,000 advance to work on his Dresden book (and two other novels) full-time.

4. Published on March 31, 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five became an instant and surprise hit. It spent sixteen weeks on the New York Times best seller list and went through five printings by July.

5. The novel owes much of its immediate success to two rave reviews; one in the New York Times Book Review, which was featured on the section's front page, and another in the Saturday Review.

6. Robert Scholes, who wrote the Times review, was a colleague of Vonnegut's at Iowa. As Jerome Kinkowitz writes in The Vonnegut Effect, “A correlation exists between the first two major reviews of Slaughterhouse-Five: each was written by a critic who had heard Vonnegut speak to audiences, and who had been, moreover, impressed by the personal voice in the author’s fictive statement. Not that public speaking was Vonnegut’s chosen profession; rather, his talk at Notre Dame University’s Literary Festival (as heard by Granville Hicks) and his two-year lectureship at the University of Iowa (where Robert Scholes was a colleague) were stopgap measures to generate some income after his customary publishing markets had either closed or ceased to respond."

7. Slaughterhouse-Five was banned from Oakland County, Michigan public schools in 1972. The circuit judge there accused the novel of being “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian.” In 1973, a school board in North Dakota immolated 32 copies of the book in the high school's coal burner.

“My books are being thrown out of school libraries all over the country—because they’re supposedly obscene," Vonnegut told the Paris Review. "I’ve seen letters to small-town newspapers that put Slaughterhouse-Five in the same class with Deep Throat and Hustler magazine. How could anybody masturbate to Slaughterhouse-Five?”

8. Slaughterhouse-Five is still being banned in schools. In 2011, Wesley Scroggins, an assistant professor at Missouri State University, called on the Republic, MO school board to ban Vonnegut's novel. He wrote in the local paper, “This is a book that contains so much profane language, it would make a sailor blush with shame. The ‘f word’ is plastered on almost every other page. The content ranges from naked men and women in cages together so that others can watch them having sex to God telling people that they better not mess with his loser, bum of a son, named Jesus Christ.” The board eventually voted 4-0 to remove the novel from the high school curriculum and its library.

9. In response to this ban, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis gave away 150 free copies of Slaughterhouse-Five to Republic, Missouri students who wanted to read it.

10. The American Library Association listed the book as the 46th most banned or challenged book of the first decade of the 21st century.

11. A film adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five directed by George Roy Hill and starring Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim was produced in 1972. Vonnegut called it "flawless."

12. The character "Wild Bob" is based on William Joseph Cody Garlow, grandson of Buffalo Bill Cody and commander of the 423rd regiment in World War II. A private in that regiment, Vonnegut was captured along with Garlow on December 19, 1944 at the Battle of the Bulge.

13. While Vonnegut fills the novel with non-fiction asides and excerpts from real accounts, the pornographic postcard carried around by Roland Weary depicting a woman with a pony flanked by doric columns is non-existent; the story of the photographer André Le Fèvre is completely fictionalized. However, the name "André Le Fèvre" may come from André Lefèvre, a famous French scoutmaster—the equivalent of a Boy Scout leader.

14. In a "Special Message" written for the Franklin Library's limited edition of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut writes, “The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is... One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I’m in.”

15. "So it goes," the book's melancholic refrain, appears in the text 106 times.

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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
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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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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