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BYRON EGGENSCHWILER

How A Wrinkle in Time Changed Sci-Fi Forever

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BYRON EGGENSCHWILER

Madeleine L'Engle sat in front of her typewriter in the Tower, her private workspace in her family’s isolated, 200-year-old Connecticut farmhouse. It was her 40th birthday—November 29, 1958—and she was at a crossroads. Though she had published five novels since her mid-twenties, she was far from a household name, and lately she was having trouble selling her work. She considered her thirties a “total failure” professionally. “Every rejection slip—and you could paper walls with my rejection slips—was like the rejection of me, myself, and certainly of my amour-propre,” she wrote. While her career floundered, her husband had temporarily given up his acting career and started running the local general store.

Now, her latest manuscript, The Lost Innocent, was out with a publisher. Two editors were enthusiastic, another “hated it,” and a fourth was still to be heard from. At midday, her husband called. He had gotten the mail. The book had been rejected.

The blow felt like “an obvious sign from heaven,” she wrote, “an unmistakable command: Stop this foolishness and learn to make cherry pie.” L’Engle covered her typewriter, vowed to abandon it forever, and walked around the room, sobbing.

Then, suddenly, she stopped crying. In her despair, she realized she was already considering turning this moment into another book—one about failure. She would write. She had to write. Even if she never had another work published. “It was not up to me to say I would stop, because I could not,” she wrote. And the novel that lay around the corner was about something far greater than failure.

In October of 1936, an urgent message had arrived at Ashley Hall, a private girls’ boarding school in Charleston, South Carolina. It was addressed to Madeleine, a senior, and it bore the news that her father, Charles Camp, was ill with pneumonia. He’d recently attended his Princeton reunion, where he appeared the picture of health, but upon returning home to Jacksonville, he’d begun to deteriorate. L’Engle grabbed a trusty copy of Jane Eyre and boarded a train for Florida. She arrived too late to say goodbye.

Her father had traveled the world as a foreign correspondent, worked as a freelance writer and critic, and written mystery novels. The family moved repeatedly: from New York City to France, and then to Florida. At each juncture, L’Engle was sent to boarding schools or placed in the care of a nanny. “My parents had been married for nearly 20 years when I was born,” she wrote in her memoir Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage, “and although I was a very much wanted baby, the pattern of their lives was already well established and a child was not part of that pattern.”

Early on, she sought company in books and writing, penning her first story at the age of 5, and at 8 starting a journal. She played the piano and lived in an “interior dream world.” At school, she was the odd girl out. A limp made her bad at sports. Classmates and teachers called her stupid. One teacher accused her of plagiarizing a poem that won a contest (her mother brought in a pile of stories from home to prove she hadn’t). Those experiences, along with her father’s death, left a rift that she would confront again and again in her fiction. From the beginning, her novels centered on teenage girls who don’t fit in. Her work abounds with lost and estranged parents, family conflict, and the trials of young adulthood.

She kept writing while attending Smith College, where she edited The Smith College Monthly (there, things got heated with Bettye Goldstein, the future Betty Friedan, who turned the literary magazine into an outlet for political debate) and published short stories in magazines like Mademoiselle and The Tanager. When asked by her first editors how she’d like her byline to appear, she chose “to be known not as Charles Wadsworth Camp’s talented daughter but rather, in a cleaner victory for her, as ‘Madeleine L’Engle’” (her great-grandmother’s name), writes Leonard S. Marcus in the biography Listening for Madeleine.

After college, she moved to New York City and published her first two novels within a year of each other. She also pursued a short-lived career in acting, winning spots in the Broadway and touring productions of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. On tour, she fell in love with a cast mate, Hugh Franklin, who, years later, would become famous as Dr. Charles Tyler in All My Children. They married in January of 1946 and lived in Greenwich Village (downstairs from Leonard Bernstein) before purchasing a farmhouse in Goshen, Connecticut. They had two children and adopted another, and immersed themselves in the community and their local Congregational church.

It seemed idyllic, but tensions were bubbling. In her thirties, facing repeated rejections from publishers, L’Engle privately wondered if her professional aspirations had compromised her personal life. “I went through spasms of guilt because I spent so much time writing, because I wasn’t like a good New England housewife and mother,” she later wrote in her memoir A Circle of Quiet, “and with all the hours I spent writing, I was still not pulling my own weight financially.” She yearned for proof that her divided attention to career and family had been the right choice. Instead, on her 40th birthday, she got another “no.”

A year later, she went on a 10-week cross-country camping trip with her family. As they drove through Arizona’s Painted Desert, an idea popped into her head. It started with three names: Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which. “I’ll have to write a book about them,” she told her kids.

Sigrid Estrada

On a “Dark and Story Night” (L’Engle’s first line winks at English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s infamous purple prose), a troubled young girl named Meg Murry can’t sleep in the attic bedroom of her family’s big, drafty farmhouse. She goes downstairs to find her younger brother, the genius, mind-reading Charles Wallace, already warming milk for her cocoa. Their father, a government scientist, has been missing for more than a year, and at school, Meg’s classmates tease her about it.

Then, out of the storm appears Mrs Whatsit, who will in time prove to be a celestial being. She shocks Meg’s mother by mentioning a mysterious word: tesseract—the method of time travel Meg’s father was working on before he disappeared. Soon, Charles Wallace and Meg, along with Calvin O’Keefe, a popular boy from Meg’s school, are dashing through time and space with Mrs Whatsit and her two pals, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. Their aim: To combat a darkness threatening to take over the universe and find Meg’s dad, who has been engaged in the same battle.

It’s a fantastical story featuring interstellar travel; alien planets; an evil, disembodied brain; and a world under siege from an unknown force. But ultimately, A Wrinkle in Time is grounded in human concerns that L’Engle knew all too well. “Of course I’m Meg,” she once said. Where the stories of Meg and her author diverge, aside from the interplanetary jaunts and interactions with mystical creatures, is that Meg saves her father. In doing so, she becomes empowered with the knowledge that she can take care of herself, even if she can’t save the world. “Indeed, the crux of the book rests on Meg’s coming to understand that her father cannot save her or Charles Wallace, or make the world a less anxious place,” wrote Meghan O’Rourke for Slate in 2007. “Part of the task she faces is, simply, accepting the evil that is in the world while continuing to battle against it.”

Editors, though, didn’t see what was special about the work. “Today I am crawling around in the depths of gloom,” L’Engle wrote in her journal after one suggested she cut it in half. Time and again, her manuscript was turned down. It dealt too overtly with evil, some editors said. Others couldn’t tell if it was for children or adults. L’Engle loved sharing her rejection story, Marcus writes, “varying the number of rejections she had endured—had it been 26? 36?— with each retelling.”

She told at least two stories about how it was finally accepted: In the most common, a friend of her mother connected her with John Farrar of the publishing company Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Soon she was signing a contract, but with low expectations: “Don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t do well,” they told her. In the second, more dubious version, Farrar was leaving the church where he and L’Engle worshipped when he noticed an envelope containing the manuscript on a pew and, in a publishing miracle, saved it. Finally, in 1962, two and a half years after the book’s inception, it was published.

The following year, A Wrinkle in Time was awarded the John Newbery Medal, one of the most prestigious honors in children’s literature. (When told the news, L’Engle responded with “an inarticulate squawk.”) She would go on to publish, on average, a book a year for the next 40 years. Financially stable from her writing at last, she also felt the professional validation she’d been craving for so long. Looking back at that fateful 40th birthday, she wrote, “I did learn ... that success is not my motivation. I am grateful for that terrible birthday, which helps me to wear glass slippers lightly, very lightly.”

Still, there’s no doubt that she felt euphoric on the night she accepted her Newbery award, even if not everyone present enjoyed the moment. After the speech, the story goes, an acquaintance went into the ladies room, where one of the many editors who had rejected the book leaned over the sink and drunkenly sobbed: “And to think I turned down that manuscript!”

The reception of Wrinkle was far from universally positive, though. It was a weird mashup of genres combining science fiction with fantasy and a quest; a coming-of-age story with elements of romance, magic, mystery, and adventure. There’s a political, anti-conformist message, and at its heart is the importance of family, community, freedom of choice, and, most of all, love. In some ways, there was too much room for interpretation in L’Engle’s themes. Secular critics deemed it excessively religious—L’Engle was a devout Anglican—but religious conservatives, who have repeatedly tried to ban it, argued it was anti-Christian.

The book, published at the beginning of the second wave of feminism, also carried a groundbreaking message: Girls could do anything boys could do, and better. A year later, The Feminine Mystique, written by L’Engle’s former classmate Betty Friedan, would emerge as a platform for the frustrated American housewife, and Congress would pass the Equal Pay Act, making it illegal to pay a woman less than what a man would earn for the same job. To some extent, Mrs. Murry in A Wrinkle in Time is already living the future: She’s a brilliant scientist who works alongside her husband and in his absence, too; later in the series, she wins a Nobel Prize. (Math whiz Meg would grow up to follow similar pursuits.) And Meg, a girl, is able to succeed where the men and boys—Calvin, Charles Wallace, and her father—cannot.

With that character so like herself, L’Engle struck back against the 1950s ideal of the woman whose duty was to home and family (the same expectations that conflicted the author in her thirties). Instead of staying at home, Meg goes out into the universe, exploring uncharted territories and unheard-of planets.

At the time, science fiction for and by women was a rarity. There was no one like Meg Murry before Meg Murry, though she left a legacy to be picked up by contemporary young adult heroines like The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen and the Harry Potter series’ Hermione Granger. Beyond creating this new type of heroine, A Wrinkle in Time, along with Norton Juster’s 1961 book The Phantom Tollbooth, changed science fiction itself, opening “the American juvenile tradition to the literature of ‘What if?’ as a rewarding and honorable alternative to realism in storytelling,” writes Marcus. This shift, in turn, opened doors for writers like Lloyd Alexander and Ursula K. Le Guin. In these fantasy worlds, as in the real world, things can’t always be tied up neatly. Evil can never be truly conquered; indeed, a key to fighting it is knowing that. It’s a sophisticated lesson children thrill to, and one in which adults continue to find meaning.

When asked why she wrote for children, L’Engle would often reply, “I don’t”—her stories were stories she needed to write, for whomever wanted to read them. But she also remembered what it felt like to be young, how endless the possibilities were, real or imagined. If anyone persisted in questioning her, she would sharply inform them, “If I have something I want to say that is too difficult for adults to swallow, then I will write it in a book for children.”

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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