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9 Magical Facts About 100 Years of Solitude

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To call Gabriel García Márquez a luminary is an understatement. When he died at 87 in 2014, his native Colombia mandated three days of mourning for the literary superstar popularly known as “Gabo.” Though he wrote many great works, he remains most famous for One Hundred Years of Solitude, which chronicles one unlucky, sometimes incestuous, always-fascinating family in the fictional village of Macondo. Here are 9 fascinating facts about one of literature’s indispensible masterworks, which was completed 50 years ago this year.

1. ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE HAS BEEN A BLOCKBUSTER SINCE ITS RELEASE.

García Márquez finished writing One Hundred Years of Solitude in late 1966; the book was first released the following year. Since then, it has sold more than 50 million copies in 25 languages, reportedly outselling everything published in Spanish except for the Bible. "If I hadn’t written [the book], I wouldn’t have read it,” García Márquez told the Atlantic in 1973. “I don’t read best sellers.”

2. WE ALMOST DIDN’T GET THE BOOK.

The typewriter on which One Hundred Years of Solitude was written, on display at the National Library of Colombia in Bogota. Image credit: Getty Images

García Márquez had published four books in Spanish before One Hundred Years of Solitude, but became so discouraged that he gave up writing altogether for more than five years. However, he couldn’t get the idea out of his head. Once he decided to try again, his wife became their family’s sole breadwinner while he threw himself into the work, without any idea where the plot would take him. “I did not stop writing for a single day for 18 straight months, until I finished the book,” he told one interviewer. The manuscript was so large and his family’s savings were so meager that he could only afford to mail one half of it to a potential publisher. By accident, he sent the second half; the publisher was so eager to read the first half, he provided money for the postage. 

3. THE MAN WHO TRANSLATED GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ DESERVES HIS OWN BIOGRAPHIES.

Cuban-American literature professor Gregory Rabassa served as a cryptologist during World War II, breaking codes, visiting the White House, and dancing with Marlene Dietrich. With fluency in at least seven languages, he also interrogated high-level Axis prisoners. On a recommendation from a fellow writer, García Márquez waited a year for Rabassa to become available. When One Hundred Years of Solitude reached the Anglophone world in 1970, he was so happy with the result, he told his translator that the English version was better than his own. 

4. DESPITE HIS FAME AS A MAGICAL REALIST, GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ BEGAN HIS CAREER AS A JOURNALIST.

One of his biggest stories was an investigation into a shipwrecked Colombian naval destroyer. After talking to the sole survivor, García Márquez found that the official story about the ship’s distress—that it had encountered a storm—was inaccurate; the crew members had actually been knocked into the sea by badly packed contraband. Dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla was so furious about the story that direct reprisals against the publisher culminated in the newspaper shutting down.

The writer remained deeply political his whole life, and also wielded his pen against capitalism. The colonial banana company described in One Hundred Years of Solitude was so clearly modeled on the massive United Fruit corporation, which Márquez had seen ravage his hometown growing up, that the book was part of the reason it eventually had to rebrand itself—as Chiquita.

5. BY ACCIDENT, GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ STUMBLED ONTO ANOTHER GENRE: MEDICAL REALISM.

García Márquez had his own conception of magical realism and where it came from (more on that later), but sometimes what he thought was imagination turned out to be something real. Early in One Hundred Years of Solitude, a plague of insomnia afflicts Macondo. Villagers begin forgetting the words for things and concepts; protagonist José Arcadio Buendía even meticulously labels everyday objects around town. This cognitive impairment was actually described in medical literature for the first time in 1975, eight years after the book’s initial release. It’s called semantic dementia, and García Márquez accurately describes the effects of certain kinds of degeneration in the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes.

6. THE BOOK’S RECEPTION WAS A BIT LIKE BEATLEMANIA. 

The author with a commemorative edition of the book in 2007. Image credit: Getty Images.

Two days after the sometimes-psychedelic One Hundred Years of Solitude debuted, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band dropped. They each exemplified a similar zeitgeist: García Márquez rocketed to the forefront of a pan-Latin American literary movement called El Boom, which also included heavyweights such as Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa. Everyone from intellectuals to blue-collar laborers to sex workers bought and read and talked about the book. Its appeal across class lines fed into a heady period rocked by political and cultural upheaval. “It was seen as the first book to unify the Spanish-language literary culture, long divided between Spain and Latin America, city and village, colonizers and colonized,” writes Vanity Fair’s Paul Elie

7. GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ WAS DETERMINED THAT NO ONE WOULD EVER FILM ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE. 

The book itself is massive, dense, and deliberately circular—many critics have pointed out that it follows the plot of the Bible—but that hasn’t stopped other adaptations of his work. Love in the Time of Cholera became a Hollywood film starring Javier Bardem and Benjamin Bratt. But when the producer Harvey Weinstein approached García Márquez about One Hundred Years of Solitude, there were conditions: "We must film the entire book, but only release one chapter—two minutes long—each year, for 100 years."

8. MAGICAL REALISM ITSELF WAS A POLITICAL ACT FOR GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ—AND FOR THOSE WHO FOLLOWED HIM. 

García Márquez in 2006. Image credit: Getty Images.

Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz called it a tool “that enables Caribbean people to see things clearly in their world, a surreal world where there are more dead than living, more erasure and silence than things spoken.” The British-Indian author Salman Rushdie recognized his experience in García Márquez’s Latin America. Ghanaian poet Nii Parkes said the writer “taught the West how to read a reality alternative to their own, which in turn opened the gates for other non-Western writers like myself and other writers from Africa and Asia." 

9. GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ DIDN’T THINK THE BOOK WAS ALL THAT MAGICAL.

What others call magical realism, García Márquez simply calls lived experience. He once claimed that of everything he had written, all of it he’d known, experienced, or heard before he was 8 years old. “You only have to open the newspapers to see that extraordinary things happen to us every day, ” he said in 1988. “There's not a single line in my novels which is not based on reality.”

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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