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james warhola

15 Things You Might Not Know About Stranger in a Strange Land

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james warhola

While Robert A. Heinlein had put together a healthy bibliography throughout the 1940s and ’50s, he broke new ground with the publication of his 1961 science-fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land. The apex of Heinlein’s career and a cornerstone of its genre, the sociopolitical allegory is now recognized as a landmark of American literature. Despite the novel’s prominence, there are a few facts about its conception, writing, and extensive rewriting that might have eluded you.

1. THE BOOK’S ORIGINAL TITLE WAS NOT AS BIBLICAL.

The novel takes its title from the scriptural verse Exodus 2:22 and Moses’s reflections on fleeing Egypt and producing a son with his wife Zipporah: “For he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.” Before adopting the passage as the name of his book, Heinlein considered the decidedly less religious title The Heretic. The author also tinkered with working titles including A Martian Named Smith and The Man from Mars.

2. THE AUTHOR’S WIFE CAME UP WITH THE IDEA THAT INSPIRED STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. 

While Heinlein brought the interplanetary exploits of Valentine Michael Smith to life, his third wife, Virginia, provided the basic idea from which the novel sprang. What’s more, Ginny Heinlein—an accomplished biochemist and engineer—drew inspiration for the concept that would become Stranger in a Strange Land from the works of author Rudyard Kipling. She summarized the idea as a variation on The Jungle Book with the Mowgli character raised by Martians rather than animals.

3. THE STORY’S DEVELOPMENT TOOK 13 YEARS. 

The idea first came to the Heinlein household in 1948, but Robert Heinlein shelved the concept in favor of projects that promised quicker turnarounds. Throughout the early 1950s, Heinlein accumulated bits and pieces of the overall “boy from Mars” story before finally starting to assemble a coherent manuscript in 1955—albeit one he quickly abandoned.

The late 1950s saw Heinlein devoting his focus to projects like running ads in favor of nuclear testing and the novel Starship Troopers, with occasional returns to what would ultimately become Stranger in a Strange Land. He completed the novel by 1960 before spending a year answering his publishers’ demands for revision.

4. HEINLEIN FOUGHT TO KEEP THE MORE “CONTROVERSIAL” MATERIAL IN THE NOVEL. 

Publishing group G.P. Putnam’s Sons initially urged Heinlein to ditch some of the book’s more controversial passages, particularly content that touched on sexual or religious themes. Heinlein remained unconvinced that his story could survive without these elements. The author famously remarked in a letter to longtime friend and literary agent Lurton Blassingame, “If I cut out religion and sex, I am very much afraid that I will end with a nonalcoholic martini.” 

Heinlein continued, “This story is supposed to be a completely free-wheeling look at contemporary human culture from the nonhuman viewpoint of the Man from Mars (in the sense of the philosophical cliche)…No sacred cows of any sort…But, in addition to a double dozen of minor satirical slants, the two major things which I am attacking are the two biggest, fattest sacred cows of all, the two that every writer is supposed to give at least lip service to: the implicit assumptions of our Western culture concerning religion and concerning sex.” 

Summing up his stance, Heinlein proclaimed, “I don't see how to take out the sex and religion. If I do, there isn't any story left.” 

5. EDITORS SUCCEEDED IN GETTING HEINLEIN TO TRIM THE NOVEL’S SPRAWLING LENGTH 

The initial draft that Heinlein turned in to Putnam tipped the scales at a whopping 220,000 words and 800 pages, far too long for the publisher’s tastes. While Heinlein was ultimately permitted to keep the sexual and religious content, he did agree to cut over a quarter—approximately 60,000 words—of his text. 

6. HEINLEIN WAS DISAPPOINTED BY THE PRINTED VERSION. 

The extensive edits required by Putnam left Heinlein unhappy with Stranger in a Strange Land. The author lamented the state of the novel during a late stage of the editing process in a letter to Blassingame: “The story is now as tight as a wedge in a green stump and, short of completely recasting it and rewriting it, I can’t get it much tighter. I have rewritten and cut drastically in the middle where [Putnam] felt it was slow…As it is, it is cut too much in parts—the style is rather ‘telegraphese,’ somewhat jerky—and I could very handily use a couple of thousand words of ‘lubrication,’ words put back in to make the style more graceful and readable.” 

7. THE NOVEL CLAIMS A LOFTY SUPERLATIVE. 

Following the terrific commercial and critical success of Stranger in a Strange Land, publishers decided to brand a batch of copies with the tag, “The most famous Science Fantasy Novel of all time."

8. BUT THE AUTHOR DISAGREED WITH THIS GENRE LABEL.

Heinlein insisted that his story was “not science fiction by any stretch of the imagination,” indicating that this genre designation was mutually exclusive with what he felt was a more accurate description of the nature of the book: a sociopolitical satire of sex and religion in contemporary culture.

9. STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND WAS THE FIRST OF ITS KIND TO EARN A COVETED HONOR. 

The novel was published during the 30th year of the New York Times Best Sellers list’s circulation. Despite Heinlein’s misgivings about the genre label, Stranger in a Strange Land became the very first science-fiction book to make the hallowed list. 

10. THE BOOK GAVE THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE A NEW WORD.

Although not exactly a mainstay of everyday speech, the word grok—first introduced to the world via Stranger in a Strange Land—has permeated the English lexicon. The particularly unattractive neologism can be found in both Webster’s Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary, which identify it as a verb meaning, to understand profoundly, intuitively, or by empathy. 

11. IT ALSO GAVE CALIFORNIA A NEW RELIGION. 

A few years after Stranger in a Strange Land was published, St. Louis native Timothy Zell made it his life’s work to bring to life of one of Heinlein’s creations: the Church of All Worlds. Adopting the handle Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, founding father Zell established the Neo-Pagan group as a legally recognized religion in the state of California to promote philosophical tolerance, polygamy, and tenets of both socialism and libertarianism. Heinlein never joined or endorsed Zell’s Church of All Worlds, although he is said to have subscribed to the organization’s newsletter, Green Egg

12. MORE IMPORTANTLY, IT MIGHT HAVE GIVEN THE WORLD THE WATERBED. 

Also in 1968, Charles Prior Hall sought a patent on a modern mattress filled not with solid stuffing but with water. Unbeknownst to the would-be inventor, acquiring this registration would prove difficult because the concept and design of “the waterbed” could be traced to three recent novels, all written by Heinlein: Beyond the Horizon, Double Star, and Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein later acknowledged his personal hospital stints had driven him to design a more comfortable sickbed, but he never pursued the project beyond illustration in his fiction. In 1971, Hall finally won legal rights to a variation on his waterbed design. 

13. THE NOVEL WAS FALSELY ACCUSED OF INFLUENCING CHARLES MANSON. 

Stranger in a Strange Land’s otherwise impressive legacy gained an unsightly blemish when it was associated with cult leader Charles Manson by several writers who claimed the infamous murderer was a fan of the work. 

Hoping to free Heinlein of the anchor that was any association with—or worse yet, blame for—the atrocities committed by the Manson Family, novelist and journalist J. Neil Schulman contacted the incarcerated Manson in 1981 and asked him outright about his relationship with the novel. According to Schulman, Manson claimed to have never even read Stranger in a Strange Land, which would wholly negate the connection between the novel and his crimes. 

14. HEINLEIN WAS IRKED BY READERS WHO LOOKED TO STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND FOR “ANSWERS.” 

In the wake of his novel’s success, Heinlein endured the fate of many influential artists: Answering harebrained questions from misguided fans. Some readers viewed the text as a manifesto of sorts—an articulation of what Heinlein saw as wrong with society and, what’s more, how to overcome these follies. When probed by readers to expand on his presumed solutions for fixing the world, Heinlein had trouble disguising his frustration. On one occasion, he expressed his feelings by saying: “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers. It is an invitation to think, not to believe.” 

15. IN 1991, THE UNABRIDGED VERSION OF THE BOOK WAS FINALLY PUBLISHED.

Shortly after Heinlein’s death, the author’s widow asked the University of California, Santa Cruz, to send her the original version of Stranger in a Strange Land. The university complied and sent the entire document—all 800 pages of it—to her for reading. Because of changes in copyright law, the original publication contract was cancelled, allowing Virginia Heinlein to release this early incarnation of the novel, which all parties agreed would be more agreeable, both in content and length, to a more modern audience than it would have in the early 1960s. What’s more, all parties agreed with what Heinlein himself had been saying all along: the longer version really was better.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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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