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12 Things You May Not Know About The Dark Tower Series

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Stephen King’s world-traversing fantasy epic is a fan favorite, but even if you’ve read all eight volumes of the Dark Tower saga, you can probably pick up a few new nuggets and theories about the sweeping work.

1. Robert Browning’s Poetry Inspired the Series.

The first volume of the Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, drew inspiration from Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” and King even borrowed the name for his heroic gunslinger Roland Deschain. The author first read the poem during his sophomore year at the University of Maine, and it stuck with him.

King explained his fascination with the poem in a 1989 interview with the Castle Rock News: “Browning never says what that tower is, but it’s based on an even older tradition about Childe Roland that’s lost in antiquity. Nobody knows who wrote it, and nobody knows what the Dark Tower is. So I started off wondering: What is this tower? What does it mean? And I decided that everybody keeps a Dark Tower in their heart that they want to find.”

2. An odd ream of paper helped, too.

King writes in an afterward to The Gunslinger, “The Dark Tower began, I think, because I inherited a ream of paper in the spring semester of my senior year of college … The ream of paper I inherited was bright green, nearly as thick as cardboard, and of an extremely eccentric size—about 7 inches wide by 10 inches long, as I recall.” In need of a project to fill out this strange green paper, King began writing the first book in March 1970.

3. T.S. Eliot’s work also makes an appearance.

Browning isn’t the only famous poet who influenced King. The series’ third installment, The Waste Lands, nearly duplicates the title of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The two main sections of the novel (“Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust” and “Lud: A Heap of Broken Images”) directly allude to lines from the poem.

4. The series wasn’t an immediate hit.

The Gunslinger came out in a limited hardcover edition in 1982, but the first mass-market edition didn’t drop until 1988. King explained the publication delay in the 1989 Castle Rock News interview:

There were really two reasons. One-was I didn’t think anybody would want to read it. It wasn’t like the other books. The first volume didn’t have any firm grounding in our world, in reality; it was more like a Tolkien fantasy of some other world. The other reason was that it wasn’t done; it wasn’t complete ... [I]t made a certain amount of sense, but there was all this stuff that I wasn’t talking about that went on before the book opens, and when the book ends, there’s all this stuff to be resolved, including: What is this all about? What is this tower? Why does this guy need to get there?

5. Keep your eyes open for Harry Potter references.

King also paid homage to more contemporary fantasy works. In Wolves of the Calla, the author uses the same font for his chapter titles as the ones used in all seven Harry Potter books. The titular wolves use golden homing grenade-like weapons called “sneetches” (a few letters removed from everyone’s favorite Quidditch ball) stamped with a familiar-looking serial number: 465-11-AA HPJKR. The “HPJKR,” of course, stands for “Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling.”

6. King may someday write himself out of the books.

Although he’s famous for making cameos in movies and TV miniseries based on his novels, King had second thoughts after including himself as a character in the series. The author mentioned in an interview with fellow scribe Neil Gaiman for The Sunday Times that he would consider writing out the author proxy who appears in the fifth and sixth Dark Tower volumes.

7. There’s a bit of spaghetti Western in Roland, too.

While Roland Deschain takes his name and purpose from his kindred spirit in Browning’s poem, Clint Eastwood’s performance as director Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western character “The Man With No Name” influenced the character’s look and mannerisms. The Stephen King character even winks at the comparison in Song of Susannah, telling Roland, “As The Man With No Name—a fantasy version of Clint Eastwood—you were okay. A lot of fun to partner up with.”

8. Yul Brynner is in there as well.

Wolves of the Calla tips its cap to another famous Western—this time, King shows his adoration for The Magnificent Seven. On the ever-winding path to the Dark Tower, there’s a town named Calla Bryn Sturgis: That’s Bryn as in Yul Brynner, of Magnificent Seven fame, and Sturgis as in John Sturges, the film’s director.

9. Not even King knew how it would all end.

King’s slow progress on the series had a tendency to drive fans crazy, and some tried to get the author to reveal where the series was headed. In a foreword to the fourth installment, Wizard and Glass, King wrote that an elderly cancer patient and a fan on death row had both written letters asking for the end. The inmate pledged that he would take the secret to his grave, an offer that King said “gave me the creeps.”

Unfortunately, King didn’t know how the series would end. He writes in the foreword, “I would have given both of these folks what they wanted—a summary of Roland’s further adventures—if I could have done, but alas, I couldn’t…To know, I have to write. I once had an outline, but I lost it along the way.”

10. Roland’s universe permeates all of King’s work

In an afterword to Wizard and Glass, King cemented the notion that the universe he wove in the Dark Tower series includes his other works, stating that: “I have written enough novels and short stories to fill a solar system of the imagination, but Roland's story is my Jupiter—a planet that dwarfs all the others . . . a place of strange atmosphere, crazy landscape, and savage gravitational pull…I am coming to understand that Roland's world (or worlds) actually contains all the others of my making.” King’s official website even includes a list of user-submitted connections between Roland’s story and his other novels.

11. King also borrowed characters from his previous books.

One of the series’ main characters, Father Callahan, first appeared in King’s 1975 vampire novel, ’Salem’s Lot. In his reappearance in the Dark Tower series, the priest discovers a copy of ’Salem’s Lot in a Manhattan bookstore. Other Dark Tower characters to appear in multiple King works: Randall Flagg (The Stand and The Eyes of the Dragon), Patrick Danville (Insomnia), the Crimson King (Insomnia), and Ted Brautigan (Hearts in Atlantis).

12. There may still be more to come.

When Rolling Stone asked King in October 2014 if he was done writing Dark Tower books, the writer gave a cryptic answer: “I'm never done with The Dark Tower.The thing about The Dark Tower is that those books were never edited, so I look at them as first drafts. And by the time I got to the fifth or sixth book, I'm thinking to myself, ‘This is really all one novel.’ It drives me crazy. The thing is to try to find the time to rewrite them. There's a missing element—a big battle at a place called Jericho Hill. And that whole thing should be written, and I've thought about it several times, and I don't know how to get into it.”

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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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