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10 Facts About Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

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The Bell Jar is the only novel written by the poet Sylvia Plath. Published one month before Plath killed herself at age 30, the story follows a young woman, Esther Greenwood, through a mental breakdown, suicide attempt, and electric shock therapy in a hospital. The novel and the spate of brilliant poems Plath wrote right before her death still reverberate today, 52 years later. 

1. Plath wanted to write a best seller like The Snake Pit. 

Plath always called The Bell Jar a “potboiler"—a term used to refer to something created with the popular tastes of the day in mind. Her intention was to write something like the 1946 novel The Snake Pit by Mary Jane Ward. Like The Bell Jar, Ward’s book is about her experiences in a mental hospital. In 1959, Plath wrote in her journal, “Must get out Snake Pit. There is an increasing market for mental-hospital stuff. I am a fool if I don't relive, recreate it.” 

2. The story is based on Plath’s “guest editorship” at Mademoiselle.

The first half of the novel follows Esther though a summer internship at Ladies' Day magazine in New York. Plath won a “guest editorship” at Mademoiselle in 1953. (Other past guest editors included Joan Didion and Ann Beattie.) The experiences in the novel are based on real events and people. For example, the character Philomena Guinea was based on Plath’s literary patron, Olive Higgins Prouty. The scene in which Esther eats an entire bowl of caviar by herself was a real thing Plath did.

3. Like Plath, Esther tries to kill herself and is sent to a hospital.

After returning from New York, Esther discovers that she didn’t get into a short story class, which accelerates her depression. Likewise, Plath was rejected from Frank O’Connor’s short story class at Harvard. Esther’s suicide attempt by taking sleeping pills and hiding in a crawlspace also mirrors Plath’s actions, down to the note she left her mother and the cut on her face. Just like Plath, Esther is found after three days and taken to a mental hospital. Plath was taken to McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, which has also treated Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, David Foster Wallace, James Taylor, and Ray Charles, among others. 

4. After years of writer’s block, Plath wrote the book very quickly

Plath repeatedly tried to write about her mental breakdown but found that she was hopelessly blocked on the subject. Then, in 1961, when her poetry collection The Colossus and Other Poems was accepted for publication, the block suddenly disappeared. After “a night of inspiration,” she started working on the novel every morning at “a great pace,” according to her husband Ted Hughes. She completed a draft in 70 days. 

5. The book was rejected by American publishers.

When Plath received a $2,080 novel-writing fellowship associated with publishers Harper & Row, she must have thought that publication was a sure thing. But Harper & Row rejected The Bell Jar, calling it "disappointing, juvenile and overwrought." While British publisher William Heinemann accepted the book, Plath still had trouble finding an American publisher. “We didn’t feel that you had managed to use your materials successfully in a novelistic way,” one editor wrote.

6. The Bell Jar was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. 

Plath used a pseudonym for two reasons: one was to protect the people she fictionalized in the book—not only would it embarrass her mother, but her publisher worried about libel suits. She also wanted to separate her serious literary reputation from her “potboiler,” as well as protect the book from being judged as the work of a poet. 

Originally, Esther was also named Victoria Lucas, but Plath was persuaded by her editor to find an alternative. She agreed, and changed the character’s name to Esther Greenwood. 

7. The Bell Jar didn’t get the attention Plath was expecting. 

When The Bell Jar was published in January 1963, it didn’t seem likely to become a literary sensation. Reviews weren't terrible—some were even positive—but they were all, for the most part, indifferent. As Anne Stevenson wrote in the biography Bitter Fame, Victoria Lucas “would be patted on the head for good writing, scolded for weak plotting, and passed over.” This disappointment occurred at the lowest period of Plath's life. She died less than a month later. 

8. Plath’s mother didn’t want the book to come out in the U.S.

The Bell Jar was published under Plath’s name in England in 1966, but it didn’t come out in the United States until 1971. Plath’s mother, Aurelia, didn’t want people she knew to recognize themselves in the book, believing it showed "the basest ingratitude" to Plath’s friends and family. Hughes finally published The Bell Jar in the U.S. because he wanted money to buy a country house—much to Aurelia’s displeasure. 

9. The book was made into a movie in 1979.

For better or worse, here it is.

10. It’s Plath’s only novel … or is it?

When Plath died, she was writing another novel titled, at different points, Double Exposure or Doubletake, about the breakdown of her marriage to Hughes. Plath told friends it was “better than The Bell Jar” and made her “laugh and laugh, and if I can laugh now it must be hellishly funny stuff.” Whether she finished the novel is unclear. Originally Hughes said the book was 130 pages, but he later revised that number to 60 or 70 pages. In any case, Hughes claims the novel disappeared in 1970. Here’s hoping it someday resurfaces. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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