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10 Recent Bestsellers People Tried to Ban (and Why)

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The fact that classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye were banned when they were first released is now as commonly taught in schools as the books themselves. But that was the ‘60s, a time when racial segregation was still legal and sex education was barred from schools—we wouldn’t think of banning books for progressive content today, right? Wrong. 

Each year, hundreds of formal challenges asking for the removal of “inappropriate” books from shelves and syllabi are filed with schools and libraries across the country. And more often than not, the books in question are contemporary novels that top the bestseller lists even as their worth is questioned. To promote awareness of this attempted censorship, the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom compiles a list of the most commonly challenged books each year. Here are 10 wildly popular 21st century books that people have tried to ban—and the surprising reasons they were deemed unsuitable material.

1. The Captain Underpants Series

Dav Pilkey’s popular series for beginning readers, published by Scholastic, frequently tops the ALA’s list of most challenged books (having made the top 10 in 2013, 2012, 2005, 2004, and 2002, and ranking No. 13 on The 100 Banned/Challenged Books from 2000-2009). What’s so upsetting about two fourth-grade best friends and their homegrown comic-books-come-to-life? Offensive language, violence, and material unsuitable to the age group. School districts in California and Connecticut tried to ban the series in 2001 because it was allegedly causing unruly behavior among the children. Apparently, (literal) toilet talk is seen as unsuitable for the under-10 set.

2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

This story of a Native American boy who leaves his school on the Spokane Indian Reservation to attend an all-white high school, written in 2007 by Sherman Alexie, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature the year it was released. It has also been challenged for drugs, alcohol, smoking, offensive language, racism, and sexually explicit content (in places including Stockton, Missouri; Richland, Washington; Idaho's Meridian district—the list goes on and on) every year since 2010.

3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Stephen Chbosky’s coming-of-age novel has been so popular amongst teens since its 1999 release that it was made into a feature film starring Percy Jackson’s Logan Lerman and Harry Potter’s Emma Watson in 2012. During his freshman year of high school, introvert Charlie, the novel’s protagonist, is faced with questions of friendship, sexuality, and substance abuse, while he struggles to repress memories of his own sexual abuse. Challengers were angered by the book’s depictions of all of the above, particularly homosexuality and bestiality, and deemed the book “unsuited to age group.” If teenagers can’t read the issues that teens face, who can?

4. And Tango Makes Three

And Tango Makes Three is a 2005 picture book written by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson. It tells the true story of two male penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo who became a couple when they were given an egg to raise. This heart-warming tale of an untraditional family landed on the ALA’s list of top 10 challenged books in 2012, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, and 2006, as challengers felt it was unsuitable for its age group due to its depiction of homosexuality. It is No. 4 on the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books from 2000-2009, ahead of the aforementioned Perks of Being a Wallflower.

5. The Internet Girls Series

ttyl, ttfn, and l8r, g8r, comprise a trilogy of books written for teenagers entirely as instant messages. While Lauren Myracle’s books racked up the usual complaints of sexually explicit content and offensive language (they do feature three 16-year-old girls, after all), they also received challenges based on religious viewpoint, as they feature harsh views of Christianity and a religious character guilty of sexual assault. Myracle wrote a response to the "honor" of topping the ALA's list for the Huffington Post in 2012. "Being an author of banned books is cool, I've decided," she wrote. "I'm writing books that evoke a reaction, books that, if dropped in a lake, go down not with a whimper but a splash."

6. The Alice Series

Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, the author of such beloved young adult books as Shiloh (which won the Newbery Medal in 1992) and Night Cry, helped a generation of girls deal with weighty themes such as loss, acceptance, faith, and sexuality with her prolific Alice series. Beginning with The Agony of Alice, published in 1985, and ending with Now I’ll Tell You Everything (2013), Naylor’s titular heroine—who begins as a 6th grader—copes with growing up after her mother dies of leukemia. Second on the ALA’s list of Top 100 Banned/Challenged list, parents found issue with the series’ depiction of nudity, sexually explicit content, homosexuality, drug use, religious viewpoint, and offensive language. One mom in Phoenix, Arizona, asked that the books be pulled from elementary school shelves after discovering that Lovingly Alice " described sex in detail and used the words 'penis' and 'vagina.'"

7. What My Mother Doesn’t Know

Following in the grand tradition of novels with teen female protagonists in all their questioning, experimenting, discovering glory being deemed inappropriate (from Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to Judy Blume’s novels to the aforementioned ttyl and Alice series), Sonya Sones’s 2001 novel appears on the ALA’s yearly challenged books list four times between 2001 and 2013 and ranks No. 31 on its 100 Most Banned Books list. Once again, Sones’s tale of young love (written entirely in verse) was considered too sexually explicit and full of offensive language for its intended audience. Ironically, What My Mother Doesn’t Know was chosen as one of the ALA Best Books for Young Adults in 2002.

8. The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel, which stayed No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List for two years after its 2003 release, selling over 70,000 hardback and 1,250,000 paperback copies, was challenged in 2008 and 2012 for homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, and sexually explicit material. That these are used to portray tumultuous political and familial relationships—and show how themes of redemption, guilt, and faith permeate both personal and global spheres—are, apparently, irrelevant.

9. The Hunger Games

The surprising thing about Suzanne Collins’s dystopian trilogy’s inclusion on these lists is not its presence itself, but the reason for its presence. One can maybe understand parents and teachers who feel the novel is too violent for young readers, such as a New Hampshire mother who called for the book's ban after it gave her 11-year-old daughter nightmares. However, in addition to violent content, The Hunger Games was most often challenged in 2010, 2011, and 2013 for its religious viewpoint, anti-ethnic and anti-family sentiments, and occult or satanic imagery. Rebellious kids, it seems, are a big no-no for anxious parents and authority figures.

10. The Harry Potter Series

It probably comes as no surprise that the No. 1 Banned or Challenged Books from 2000-2009 are J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Rowling’s allegory for good vs. evil, starring a boy wizard and his magical friends, has been vilified by conservative Christians for its alleged satanic themes. Never mind the fact that the novels, published between 1997 and 2007, take a progressive stance on discrimination and sexism. Or that there are over 450 million Harry Potter books in print worldwide, the books have been translated into 73 different languages, and the Harry Potter brand is now worth an estimated $15 billion.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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