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10 Surprising Facts About The Writing Lives of Great Authors

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In my new book, Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors, I cover the techniques, habits and inspirations of 18 of the greatest writers of the 20th century and today. Part of the joy in writing this book came with the periodic discovery of unexpected facts about writers I thought I already knew so well. Here are 10 of the most surprising, counterintuitive, sometimes jaw-dropping facts that made their way into Process.

1. James Joyce never set foot in Ireland after the year he turned 30.

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A writer who needed distance from his subject of choice in order to write about it, Joyce left Ireland as soon as he could, then spent the rest of his life considering it. In 1904, at age 22, he settled in Trieste, Italy with the woman who would eventually become his wife, Nora. 1904 was also incidentally the year in which his masterpiece, Ulysses, is based. “For Joyce, Dublin was always the Dublin of 1904,” says David Norris, who runs the James Joyce Centre in Dublin. Not even his father’s funeral in 1931 could get him back to his home country.

2. Toni Morrison didn’t start writing until her mid-thirties.

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Happily employed as a professor at Howard University in her thirties, Morrison joined a writing group just for fun, and in it started working on a story about a little black girl who wished she had blue eyes. After her divorce a short while later, she took the story back out and over the next few years it evolved into her first novel, The Bluest Eye, published when Morrison was 39 years old.

3. Nabokov had to work until he was 60.

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He was born rich in Russia, but after his family fled the Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir Nabokov found he was on his own to earn a living, first in Europe and later the United States. Early on he tutored students and taught tennis lessons. In America, he spent a decade teaching full time at Cornell University. While he had long garnered critical respect, Vladimir Nabokov didn’t get a commercial success under his belt until Lolita, published in the United States in 1958. He ended all employment outside of writing the next year.

4. Jack Kerouac never learned to drive.

Kerouac moved to New York City as a teenager on a scholarship to boarding school and then entered Columbia University, so no car was necessary to get around during the years when most people learn to drive. Through every subsequent adventure, across the country and back, down to Mexico, up from New Orleans, Jack Kerouac was never the one behind the wheel, relying on buses and his friend Neal Cassady to do the “on the road” navigating.

5. Kafka never finished a novel.

Even though he made enough progress for his friend Max Brod to organize three of his efforts into works presented as novels after his death, Kafka on his own was never able to make Amerika, The Trial, or The Castle come together, and in fact wished for Brod to destroy them, along with all of his other work, upon his death. Only because Brod refused, and subsequently sunk his efforts into configuring what Kafka left behind, do we have Kafka’s three published novels today.

6. 'Infinite Jest' started out as three separate stories.

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In his twenties, David Foster Wallace started working on a story about a video so entertaining that people watch it to the exclusion of all else until they die. Soon after, he began another one about a tennis prodigy and his idiosyncratic family. Those stories floundered until several years later when, living in a halfway house outside Boston, Wallace began a story about a man he’d met in rehab, naming the character Don Gately. He then realized the three stories belonged together, and Infinite Jest began to take shape.

7. George Orwell borrowed the plot for '1984' from a novel called 'We.'

Orwell reviewed Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We for the Tribune in 1946, and despite what he called a “rather weak and episodic plot,” he found it “relevant to our own situation.” We is set in a city of the future built of glass to enable the government, led by a Big Brother-like figure, to monitor its people in every corner and nook. Its plot centers on a man and woman who fall in love and together rebel against the state. Sound familiar? 1984 was published three years after Orwell wrote the review.

8. It took Zadie Smith almost two years to write the first 20 pages of 'On Beauty.'

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The first 20 pages are always the most difficult for Smith. She says that this first section is when the identity of the book emerges—and “the whole nature of the thing changes by the choice of a few words.” But for her 2008 novel On Beauty, those first pages provided a particularly tall challenge. After she finally got them in place after almost two years, she finished the rest of the novel in just five months.

9. Fitzgerald received $55,000 in today’s dollars for a single short story.

At the height of his career at the end of the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald commanded $4,000 per story from publications like The Saturday Evening Post and Scribner’s, or $55,000 a pop in 2014 dollars. Thanks to Fitzgerald’s meticulous recording of money earned from writing in a ledger that still exists today, we know that stories for which he received this top fee include “The Bridal Party” and “Babylon Revisited.”

10. Virginia Woolf’s room of her own was a pigsty.

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Woolf famously argued that every writer needed a space in which to think freely, and we subsequently tend to assign a particular romance to her particular writing space. But those who knew Woolf intimately got to see the reality. Her husband Leonard described “old nibs, bits of string, used matches, rusty paper-clips, crumpled envelopes, broken cigarette holders, etc,” while Vita Sackville-West recalled the “incredible muddle of objects” in Woolf’s writing room.

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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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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]