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14 Things You Might Not Know About Nineteen Eighty-Four

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George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four has given us a whole slew of shorthand phrases for dystopian or oppressive governments and surveillance, but even if you’ve already read about Winston Smith’s struggle against Big Brother, there are a few facts, stories, and theories about the novel that are worth a closer look.

1. IT NEARLY WASN’T CALLED NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR.  

In the year leading up to its publication, Orwell vocalized his indecision over what to call his novel. Before ultimately settling on Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell took a long look at the title The Last Man in Europe

2. HE ALSO HAD TROUBLE DECIDING IN WHAT YEAR THE STORY WOULD BE SET.

Before assigning his fearful prognostications to the year 1984, Orwell tried out 1980 and 1982. 

3. BEFORE CRITICIZING PROPAGANDA IN NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, ORWELL WORKED AS A PROPAGANDIST. 

During World War II, Orwell served as a television producer at the British Broadcasting Corporation. His role with the BBC Empire Service involved creating and supervising programming that the nation would feed to Indian networks to encourage a pro-Allies sentiment and spark volunteering. 

4. THE AUTHOR MODELED ROOM 101 AFTER AN OFFICE AT THE BBC. 

Nineteen Eighty-Four’s most horrifying setting is Room 101, the Ministry of Love’s torture chamber in which victims are exposed to their worst nightmares. What readers might not know is that Orwell modeled the chilling locale on an actual room. 

As a propagandist, Orwell knew that much of what the BBC said had to be approved by the Ministry of Information, probably in the BBC Broadcasting House's Room 101. He probably drew the name of his nightmare room from there. Curious about what the dreadful room looked like? The room has since been demolished, but in 2003 artist Rachel Whiteread created a plaster cast of the room

5. ORWELL WAS BEING WATCHED WHILE HE WROTE NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. 

Twelve years before he published Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell released the nonfiction piece The Road to Wigan Pier, an exploration of poverty and class oppression in England during the 1930s. Thanks to the investigative research he had conducted for Wigan Pier, which included the documentation of labor conditions in coal mines, and for the book’s pro-Socialist inclinations, Orwell was placed on a watch list by the government’s Special Branch and kept under tight surveillance for over a decade. His official file noted Orwell’s "advanced communist views" and that he "dresses in a bohemian fashion."

6. BIG BROTHER’S REGIME BORROWED PRACTICES FROM WORLD GOVERNMENTS. 

Orwell didn’t limit his sights to a single tyrannical power when designing the oppressive regime showcased in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The author borrowed a number of elements from the Soviet Union, including the "2 + 2 = 5" slogan from the so-called "five-year plan" for national development starting in 1928, while the NKVD police force provided the model for most of the Thought Police and Ministry of Love’s activity. Additionally, Nineteen Eighty-Four’s treatment of Thought Crimes resembled how the Special Higher Police, a special Japanese policing service during World War II, condemned unpatriotic thoughts during their self-styled "thought war."

7. JULIA IS BELIEVED TO BE BASED ON ORWELL’S SECOND WIFE. 

Many scholars have speculated that Julia, Nineteen Eighty-Four’s female lead and romantic interest to protagonist Winston, was modeled after Orwell’s second wife, Sonia Brownell. The comparison might not have been all that flattering, though. Orwell describes Julia as a "rebel from the waist downwards" and ultimately has Winston betray her to aid his own liberation. 

8. ORWELL WROTE THE BOOK WHILE STRUGGLING WITH TUBERCULOSIS. 

While most of us would use the opportunity of a mild cold to take a week off from work, Orwell did not let a 1947 bout with tuberculosis shift his focus away from his latest novel. It wasn’t until after he had finished Nineteen Eighty-Four, two years after his initial diagnosis, that he sought proper treatment for the disease. 

9. THE BOOK ONCE HELD THE RECORD FOR MOST TRANSLATIONS. 

By 1989, four decades after its publication, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm had both been translated into 65 languages, a record for a pair of books by a single author. 

10. ONE OF THESE TRANSLATIONS DIDN’T "GET" THE OPENING LINE. 

Although it’s common for a text to undergo changes during translations, the original Italian version of Nineteen Eighty-Four did quite a number on the ominous tone leavened by the book’s famous opening line: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." 

An unnamed translator altered the sentence to read, "…and the clocks were striking one," ostensibly unaware that Orwell had intentionally included an hour not present on most analog clocks. As 24-hour clocks were more common in Italy than in other parts of the world, the translator apparently saw no special value to Orwell’s original hour.

11. ORWELL NEARLY DROWNED WHILE WORKING ON THE NOVEL. 

Much of the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four was done in Jura, Scotland, where Orwell found himself to be most productive. Even in this setting, he was hardly exempt from bouts of procrastination—some of which were particularly disastrous. Taking a break from his writing one day in the summer of 1947, Orwell led his son, niece, and nephew on a boating expedition across the nearby Gulf of Corryvreckan. During the trip, the family’s dinghy capsized unexpectedly, tossing the lot of them overboard without life jackets. Luckily, all four survived, but the event was hardly helpful to Orwell’s already delicate medical state. 

12. NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR IS ALREADY IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN IN SOME COUNTRIES. 

Orwell’s novel is currently in the public domain in Canada, Australia, Argentina, South Africa, and Oman. The book will become public domain in the 28 nations of the European Union, as well as in Russia, as of 2021, and will be so in the United States in 2044. 

13. THE BOOK IS A FAVORITE NOVEL OF MANY FAMOUS FANS.

Stephen King, David Bowie, Mel Gibson, and Game of Thrones star Kit Harington have all listed the novel as or among their favorite books of all time. 

14. ORWELL DIED ONLY SEVEN MONTHS AFTER NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR WAS PUBLISHED. 

Although Orwell had seen success as a broadcaster, journalist, nonfiction writer, and as the author of Animal Farm, he unfortunately never got to witness the incredible influence that his most popular piece would have on the world. Orwell died on January 21, 1950, due to complications from tuberculosis.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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