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11 Things You May Not Know About The Giver

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Lois Lowry’s 1993 young adult hit The Giver has a more complex history than you may have known.

1. A visit to Lowry’s father in a nursing home helped inspire the novel. 

In his later years, Lowry’s father lost much of his long-term memory, which got Lowry thinking about the power and importance of memories: Without them, there can be no pain. She began to imagine a society where the past was deliberately forgotten so that the members could live in “peaceful ignorance.” This version of reality may relieve the people of pain, but its fatal flaw is that it also takes away valuable connections to the past and the possibility of lasting human relationships. 

In a 1994 speech, Lowry touched on this visit and the questions it sparked: “We can forget pain, I think. And it is comfortable to do so. But I also wonder briefly: is it safe to do that, to forget?” 

2. The Giver on the cover was celebrated in his own right. 

In 1979, years before she wrote The Giver, Lowry was working as a journalist when she interviewed painter Carl Gustaf Nelson. The Swedish-born painter had lived in New York and taught painting in Boston before retiring to Maine’s Cranberry Island. Nelson’s art earned him spots in prestigious shows like the Whitney Biennial, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection contains two of his pieces. Lowry visited Nelson at his home off the coast of Maine, and while there she got the chance to photograph him. 

3. Nelson may also have inspired the Giver. 

In her 1994 Newbery Award acceptance speech, Lowry reminisced about meeting Nelson: “I spend a good deal of time with this man, and we talk a lot about color. It is clear to me that although I am a highly visual person—a person who sees and appreciates form and composition and color—this man’s capacity for seeing color goes far beyond mine … Now and then I wish, in a whimsical way, that he could have somehow magically given me the capacity to see the way he did.” 

4. Nelson had something in common with the Giver.

Nelson passed away in 1988, but his face stuck with Lowry. She loved the interesting picture of Nelson so much that she held on to it, and later turned it into cover art. The choice of Nelson as the cover model would turn out to have a deeper meaning for Lowry. The artist had spent the last few years of his life in blindness, which sparked a connection. As Lowry explained in a 2006 interview with Teachingbooks.net, “[His] life was filled with color … for him to lose color, as the Giver in the book begins to lose color, seemed such a wonderful analogy that I’ve always been glad his photograph is on the cover.” 

5. Some readers condemn the book as pro-euthanasia or pro-abortion. 

The book’s concept of “release,” depicted by a man killing a newborn baby with a lethal injection, has been cited as evidence that Lowry is promoting euthanasia, suicide, or possibly abortion, but she debunks these theories. She says that those sorts of accusations are often from people who haven’t read the book thoroughly, and therefore are missing her point altogether.

6. The book received some harsh reviews …

Like many successful YA novels, The Giver hasn’t been a critical darling. Author Debra Doyle complained, “Personal taste aside, The Giver fails the Plausibility Test for me. … Things are the way they are because The Author is Making a Point; things work out the way they do because The Author’s Point Requires It.” 

7. … But it won over other critics. 

On the other hand, The New York Times’ Karen Ray wrote that although there were “occasional logical lapses,” the book is still “sure to keep older children reading. And thinking.” Lowry also claimed the annual Newbery Award for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." 

More importantly, the novel reached its target audience. It resonated with young readers so well that it’s sold over 12 million copies. A 2003 review by Rome, Ga., seventh-grader Michael Butler leads off with a view that’s shared by many of his peers: “The Giver is one of the many great books in our society today.” 

8. Lowry got the news of her Newbery win in an odd place.

Lowry had already won the medal in 1990 for Number the Stars, but the committee had trouble locating her to share the good news about her second win in 1994. Eventually, the committee reached the author by radiogram, a necessary step since she was traveling in Antarctica. “I was feeling on top of the world, though, technically speaking, I was actually at the bottom,” she quips on her personal website

9. It took Jeff Bridges over 20 years to turn the book into a film. 

The actor became interested in adapting the novel for the screen in the early ‘90s but repeatedly got jammed up by studios and battles over ownership rights. The original plan was for Bridges to direct his father, Lloyd Bridges, in the title role, but this plan was canceled with the elder Bridges’ death in 1998. The film remained stuck in development hell for almost 15 years until Bridges was given the green light in 2012. The movie was released in 2014 starring Bridges (as the Giver), Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan, and featuring Katie Holmes, Alexander Skarsgård, and Taylor Swift.

10. Readers inundated Lowry with questions about the ending … 

Lowry loved the novel’s ambiguous ending, but it drove readers crazy. She even mentioned it in her Newbery speech: “Those of you who hoped that I would stand here tonight and reveal the ‘true’ ending, the ‘right’ interpretation of the ending, will be disappointed. There isn’t one. There’s a right one for each of us, and it depends on our own beliefs, our own hopes.” 

Lowry was so sold on the novel’s ambiguity that she even told interviewers that she would never write a sequel to clarify Jonas’s fate even as reader letters requesting closure flooded her mailbox. 

11. ... until she finally gave in. 

The passionate reader reaction made Lowry reconsider her anti-sequel stance. In a 2012 interview in Entertainment Weekly she explained, “I didn’t have any intention of writing a sequel. I liked the ambiguity of the ending. Over the years, though, it became clear that younger readers in particular did not.”  

Lowry set out to give the people what they wanted, a mission that yielded three more novels. Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son round out the “loose quartet” set in this universe, but Lowry did not intend to create a series. In an interview with The Wire in 2012, Lowry said, “I had not intended [Gathering Blue] as even related to The Giver, I was creating another interesting world, to me, where things were different, and as I went along I realized I could answer some questions … I put in, at the end of Gathering Blue, the reference to the boy Jonas. … Four years later I did the third book, and they were not sequels, really, they were set at a different place at more or less the same time.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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