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10 Things You Might Not Know About J.R.R. Tolkien

There are plenty of things even the most ardent fans don't know about John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, who was born on this day in 1892. Here are 10 of them.

1. HE HAD A FLAIR FOR THE DRAMATIC.

As a linguist and expert on Old English and Old Norse literature, Tolkien was a professor at Oxford University from 1925 until 1959. He was also a tireless instructor, teaching between 70 and 136 lectures a year (his contract only called for 36). But the best part is the way he taught those classes. Although quiet and unassuming in public, Tolkien wasn't the typical stodgy, reserved stereotype of an Oxford don in the classroom. He went to parties dressed as a polar bear, chased a neighbor dressed as an axe-wielding Anglo-Saxon warrior, and was known to hand shopkeepers his false teeth as payment. As one of his students put it, "He could turn a lecture room into a mead hall."

2. HE FELT MANY OF HIS FANS WERE "LUNATICS."

Tolkien saw himself as a scholar first and a writer second. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were largely Tolkien's attempt to construct a body of myth, and their success caught him largely unaware. In fact, he spent years rejecting, criticizing, and shredding adaptations of his work that he didn't believe captured its epic scope and noble purpose. He was also utterly skeptical of most LOTR fans, who he believed were incapable of really appreciating the work, and he probably would have been horrified by movie fandom dressing up like Legolas.

3. HE LOVED HIS DAY JOB.

To Tolkien, writing fantasy fiction was simply a hobby. The works he considered most important were his scholarly works, which included Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, a modern translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and A Middle English Vocabulary.

4. HE WAS QUITE THE ROMANTIC (AND HE'S GOT THE NERDY GRAVESTONE TO PROVE IT).

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At age 16, Tolkien fell in love with Edith Bratt, three years his senior. His guardian, a Catholic priest, was horrified that his ward was seeing a Protestant and ordered the boy to have no contact with Edith until he turned 21. Tolkien obeyed, pining after Edith for years until that fateful birthday, when he met with her under a railroad viaduct. She broke off her engagement to another man, converted to Catholicism, and the two were married for the rest of their lives. At Tolkien's instructions, their shared gravestone has the names "Beren" and "Luthien" engraved on it, a reference to a famous pair of star-crossed lovers from the fictional world he created.

5. HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH C.S. LEWIS WAS NOT ALL IT'S CRACKED UP TO BE.

Tolkien's fellow Oxford don C.S. Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia) is often identified as his best friend and closest confidant. But the truth is, the pair had a much more troubled relationship. At first, the two authors were very close. In fact, Tolkien's wife Edith was reportedly jealous of their friendship. And it was Tolkien who convinced Lewis to return to Christianity. But their relationship cooled over what Tolkien perceived as Lewis's anti-Catholic leanings and scandalous personal life (he had been romancing an American divorcee at the time). Although they would never be as close as they were before, Tolkien regretted the separation. After Lewis died, Tolkien wrote in a letter to his daughter that, “So far I have felt ... like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.”

6. HE ENJOYED CLUBBING.

Well, the extra-curricular, after-school sort. Wherever Tolkien went, he was intimately involved in the formation of literary and scholarly clubs. As a professor at Leeds University, for example, he formed the Viking Club. And during his stint at Oxford, he formed the Inklings, a literary discussion group.

7. HE WASN'T BLOWING SMOKE ABOUT THOSE WAR SCENES.

Tolkien was a veteran of the First World War, and served as a second lieutenant in the 11th (Service) Battalion of the British Expeditionary Force in France. He was also present for some of the most bloody trench fighting of the war, including the Battle of the Somme. The deprivations of Frodo and Sam on their road to Mordor may have had their origins in Tolkien's time in the trenches, during which he contracted a chronic fever from the lice that infested him and was forced to return home. He would later say that all but one of his close friends died in the war, giving him a keen awareness of its tragedy that shines through in his writing.

8. HE INVENTED LANGUAGES FOR FUN.

A philologist by trade, Tolkien kept his mind exercised by inventing new languages, many of which (like the Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin) he used extensively in his writing. He even wrote songs and poems in his fictional languages. In addition, Tolkien worked to reconstruct and write in extinct languages like Medieval Welsh and Lombardic. His poem "BagmÄ“ BlomÄ" ("Flower of the Trees") might be the first original work written in the Gothic language in over a millennium.

9. HE HAS BEEN PUBLISHED ALMOST AS PROLIFICALLY POSTHUMOUSLY AS WHEN HE WAS ALIVE.

Most authors have to be content with the works they produce during their lifetime, but not Tolkien. His scribblings and random notes, along with manuscripts he never bothered to publish, have been edited, revised, compiled, redacted, and published in dozens of volumes after his death, most of them produced by his son Christopher. While Tolkien's most famous posthumous publication is The Silmarillion, other works include The History of Middle Earth, Unfinished Tales, The Children of Hurin, and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.

10. HE WASN'T NEARLY AS FOND OF NAZIS AS THEY WERE OF HIM.

Tolkien's academic writings on Old Norse and Germanic history, language, and culture were extremely popular among the Nazi elite, who were obsessed with recreating ancient Germanic civilization. But Tolkien was disgusted by Hitler and the Nazi party, and made no secret of the fact. He considered forbidding a German translation of The Hobbit after the German publisher, in accordance with Nazi law, asked him to certify that he was an "Aryan." Instead, he wrote a scathing letter asserting, among other things, his regret that he had no Jewish ancestors. His feelings are also evidenced in a letter he wrote to his son: "I have in this War a burning private grudge—which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler ... Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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