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11 Facts About Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea

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istock (background) / Scribner (cover)

The Old Man and the Sea was the last major work Ernest Hemingway published in his lifetime. The simple story is about an old man who catches a giant fish in the waters off Cuba, only to have it devoured by sharks. Defeated, he returns home with the fish’s skeleton attached to the boat. Many consider this spare novel to be Hemingway’s best work. 

1. Hemingway wrote the novel to prove he wasn’t finished as a writer.

When The Old Man and the Sea was published in 1952, Hemingway hadn’t written a significant literary work for over a decade. His last successful book, For Whom the Bell Tolls, came out in 1940. To make matters worse, his 1950 novel Across the River and Into the Trees was panned by critics. People were saying that Hemingway was "through" as a writer. He began The Old Man and the Sea to prove that not only was he still in the writing game, he had yet to produce his best work. 

2. The story had been in his mind for years.

In 1936, Hemingway wrote an essay for Esquire that contained a paragraph describing an "old man fishing alone in a skiff out of Cabañas" who hooked a big marlin that dragged him eastward for two days. The man killed the fish and then fought off sharks attracted to its blood. When the man was finally picked up, "what was left of the fish, less than half, weighed eight hundred pounds." Two years later, Hemingway started writing The Old Man and the Sea, but then got sidetracked by For Whom the Bell Tolls. By the time he returned to the story, it had been percolating in his brain for at least 16 years. 

3. The old man was based on a blue-eyed Cuban named Gregorio Fuentes.

Fabrizio Zampa,Wikimedia Commons

Although Hemingway said the old man, Santiago, was based on "nobody in particular," he most likely used aspects of his fishing buddy Gregorio Fuentes when developing the character. Like Santiago, Fuentes was gaunt and thin, had blue eyes, came from the Canary Islands, and had a long, battle-scarred history as a fisherman. Fuentes was the captain of Hemingway’s boat and the two frequently talked about the novel.

4. The fish was an Atlantic Blue Marlin.

While living in Florida and Cuba, Hemingway frequently fished for marlin in his boat, the Pilar. Not to be confused with a swordfish, Atlantic Blue Marlin are large billfish that live in the temperate and tropical regions of the Atlantic Ocean. They can get up to 14 feet long and weigh 2,000 pounds. Like in the book, a common predator is the white shark.

5. The book was dedicated to recently deceased friends.

The dedication in The Old Man and the Sea reads "To Charlie Scribner And To Max Perkins," both friends who passed away before the book came out. Max Perkins, who also edited F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, died in 1947 and Scribner, who was president of Charles Scribner's Sons, died in 1952. They were among many of Hemingway’s literary peers who died in the preceding decade, including Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, and James Joyce.

6. Hemingway claimed there was no symbolism in the book.

The fable-like structure of the novel suggests that the story is symbolic, which is why many view The Old Man and the Sea as an allegory. But Hemingway thought all that was bunk—or at least, that’s what he said. "There isn’t any symbolism," he wrote to critic Bernard Berenson. "The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man … The sharks are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know."

7. He believed the novel was his finest work.

When Hemingway sent the manuscript to his editor, Wallace Meyer, he said, "I know that it is the best I can write ever for all of my life, I think, and that it destroys good and able work by being placed alongside of it." Then he added that he hoped it would "get rid of the school of criticism that I am through as a writer."

8. The 'Life' Magazine excerpt sold out immediately.

Life featured an excerpt of The Old Man and the Sea in its September 1952 issue. The five million copies of the magazine sold out in two days. Luckily, you can peruse the original yourself online. 

9. The Old Man and the Sea made Hemingway a celebrity.

Of course, Hemingway was a known and respected author beforehand, but The Old Man and the Sea elevated his reputation to the literary giant we think of today. Critics loved the book. It won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize and was cited as a reason Hemingway won the 1954 Nobel Prize. It was also a best seller and made Hemingway a fortune. In 1955, it was made into a movie starring Spencer Tracy.

10. Even Hemingway’s literary rival, William Faulkner, liked it.

The following is a one-paragraph review Faulkner wrote about The Old Man and the Sea, published in Shenandoah:

"His best. Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves, shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hands of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further."

11. You can watch the Oscar-winning stop-motion film of the book. 

This stop-motion animation of The Old Man and the Sea was made by Russian animator Aleksandr Petrov. The film uses 29,000 images that he and his son, Dimitri, painted on glass over two years. It’s no wonder it won the 2000 Academy Award for Animated Short Film. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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