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15 Things You Might Not Know About Catch-22

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Joseph Heller’s 1961 war comedy Catch-22 is one of the most beloved novels of the 20th century, not to mention one of the funniest. Here are a few interesting bits of information about both how Heller’s story came to be and the legacy that it left behind. 

1. HELLER SKETCHED OUT THE BOOK’S CONCEPT AND CHARACTERS IN ABOUT 90 MINUTES ... 

Heller recalled the birth of his most famous novel as if it were a classic movie scene. While lying in bed in his apartment on the West Side of Manhattan in 1953, Heller was struck with what would become the iconic opening line of the story: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, ‘Someone’ fell madly in love with him,” with ‘Someone’ holding the place for Heller’s protagonist’s eventual name, Yossarian. Over the course of an hour and a half, he developed the basic plot and collection of characters that he’d ultimately pour into his novel. 

2. ... AND WROTE THE FIRST CHAPTER THE FOLLOWING DAY AT WORK.

Heller was an advertising copywriter when he had the idea for the novel. He spent the workday following his creative epiphany, writing out the entire first chapter of what would become Catch-22 by hand. He submitted the chapter to New World Writing magazine by way of a literary agent, and a full year passed before he completed a second chapter.

3. HELLER WENT THROUGH FOUR NUMBERS BEFORE LANDING ON 22.

The original title of the story, as published in New World Writing, was Catch-18. Acquiescing to his publisher’s qualms about confusion with the similarly themed novel Mila 18, Heller dragged his title through a sequence of changes: Catch-11 (which was deemed too similar to the contemporary film Ocean’s 11), followed by Catch-17 (which posed the same problem with Billy Wilder’s war movie Stalag 17), and then Catch-14 (which Heller’s publisher thought just didn’t sound funny enough). Finally, the writer landed on Catch-22

4. MANY CHARACTERS WERE BASED ON HELLER’S FRIENDS. 

Heller was a veteran of World War II, and he based a number of Catch-22’s characters on his army buddies. Yossarian’s name is believed to have come from fellow Air Force soldier Francis Yohannan (who, like the character, was Assyrian). Additionally, the sociopathic Milo Minderbinder was designed with Heller’s childhood friend, Marvin “Beansy” Winkler of Coney Island, in mind. 

5. THE AUTHOR WAS ASKED FREQUENTLY ABOUT YOSSARIAN’S ETHNICITY AND RELIGION. 

The protagonist’s ethnic background has been cause for debate since the book’s publication. In Catch-22, Heller introduces Yossarian as Assyrian, despite the fact that his surname suggests otherwise. In response to readers’ curiosity, Heller amended Yossarian’s heritage in Catch-22’s 1994 sequel Closing Time. In the second book, Yossarian was declared Armenian.

However, the most common question Heller received regarding Yossarian’s background concerned his religion, as many readers sought confirmation that the character shared Heller’s Jewish faith. In 1972, Heller responded to these quandaries in a letter to Northeastern University professor James Nagel, stating, “Yossarian isn’t Jewish and was not intended to be. On the other hand, no effort was expended to make him anything else.” 

6. THAT SAID, EARLIER DRAFTS INCLUDED A GREATER JEWISH INFLUENCE. 

As Nagel writes in a section of Biographies of Books: The Compositional Histories of Notable American Writings devoted to Catch-22, “The early drafts of the novel, particularly the sketches and notecards, have a somewhat more ‘Jewish’ emphasis than does the published novel. In Judaism, ‘eighteen’ [the original titular numeric] is a significant number in that the eighteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, ‘chai,’ means ‘living’ or ‘life.’ … Thematically, the title ‘Catch-18’ would thus contain a subtle reference to the injunction in the Torah to choose life, a principle endorsed by Yossarian at the end of the novel when he deserts.” 

7. THE BOOK WAS INITIALLY ONLY POPULAR ON THE EAST COAST.

While Catch-22 stands today as a universally appreciated political satire, it proved unsurprisingly polarizing in the heated climate of the 1960s. High school and college students, particularly those who lived on the East Coast, were early fans of the novel. As Heller told George Plimpton of The Paris Review in 1974, by 1962 sales were dwindling: “Catch-22 was not making much money. It was selling steadily (eight hundred to two thousand copies a week)—mostly by word of mouth—but it had never come close to the New York Times best-seller list.”  

8. BUT EARNED THE WRATH OF THE EAST COAST’S PREMIERE CRITICS. 

Catch-22 wasn’t universally panned, but it certainly didn’t win any popularity contests among the upper echelon of the literary criticism circuit. The original 1961 New York Times review opens: “Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, is not an entirely successful novel. It is not even a good novel. It is not even a good novel by conventional standards.”  (The reviewer did like its comedy and originality, though.)

A second review from the New York Times called the book “repetitive and monotonous,” as well as, curiously, “too short” to properly flesh out its character ensemble. Similarly, the New Yorker accused Heller’s prose of “giv[ing] the impression of having been shouted onto paper,” adding, “what remains is a debris of sour jokes.” 

9. THE AUTHOR WAS PRINCIPALLY INSPIRED BY ONE NOVEL. 

While Heller recognized a number of influences on his writing, including novelists Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Evelyn Waugh, and Vladimir Nabakov, the author once identified a single work that convinced him to write Catch-22: the dark World War I comedy The Good Soldier Švejk by Czech author Jaroslav Hašek.

10. BUT HE WAS ACCUSED OF PLAGIARIZING ANOTHER. 

Thirty-seven years after the publication of Catch-22, the book came under fire for similarities to the 1950 war novel Face of a Hero. Londoner Lewis Pollock made the connection in 1998 and contacted The Sunday Times to condemn Catch-22 as a rip-off of the obscure Louis Falstein story.

From there, the accusation gained international traction and eventually reached Heller himself. The author rejected Pollock’s claims, insisting that he had never read Face of a Hero prior to the controversy. Furthermore, his editor combated the theory by asking his interrogators why Falstein, who had only passed away in 1995, would never have broadcast any such concerns if they had borne any weight. 

Also defending Heller this time around? The New York Times. Mel Gussow wrote in the paper, “An examination of the two books leads this reader to conclude that the similarities between the two can easily be attributed to the shared wartime experiences of the authors.” 

11. A DELETED CHAPTER GAVE MAJ. MAJOR A DIFFERENT BACK STORY.

One of Heller’s more absurd characters is Major Major Major Major, cursed with his unfortunate handle and unfavorable likeness to Henry Fonda. Originally, Heller planned to delve into Major’s past in the States. He had written Major Major as a former English teacher from Vermont with a distaste for Henry James. 

12. ONE CHARACTER PROVIDES THE NAMESAKE OF A MARVEL COMICS INSTITUTION. 

The Marvel Comics superhero Isaiah Bradley undergoes a series of experiments during World War II to turn him into a “Black Captain America” at the military base Camp Cathcart, named for Catch-22’s rank-climbing soldier, Col. Chuck Cathcart.

13. CATCH-22’S ORIGINAL MANUSCRIPT LIVES AT BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY. 

After the novel was published in 1961, Heller donated his original manuscript to Brandeis University. The Massachusetts school preserves the document today, and honored the collected works of its author in 2009 on the 10-year anniversary of his death.

14.  CBS TRIED TO ADAPT THE NOVEL INTO A SITCOM 

While director Mike Nichols’ 1970 feature film adaptation of Catch-22 didn’t find huge critical or commercial success, it was hardly as big a failure as the small screen endeavor inspired by Heller’s book. In 1973, CBS produced and broadcast a Catch-22 sitcom pilot starring Richard Dreyfuss as Yossarian. The series never got a second episode. 

15. AN NBC HOST COMMITTED CATCH-22-INSPIRED VANDALISM. 

Journalist John Chancellor, known best as a host and correspondent on NBC Nightly News for 23 years, played host of NBC’s Today show between 1961 and ’62. During his tenure on the daytime program, Chancellor—a fan of Heller’s newly published novel—had personalized stickers reading “Yossarian Lives” printed, and pioneered a practical joke of placing them (discreetly) all over the hallways, offices, and bathrooms of NBC’s headquarters. He revealed his secret to Heller over a round of drinks following the author’s guest appearance on Today.

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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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