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Guided by Voices: 6 Books Supposedly Written by Ghosts

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They’ve left our earthly world, but spirits sure have a lot to share with us. At least, that seems to have been the case in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period that witnessed a boom in books said to have been drafted by the departed. That era was the golden age of Spiritualism, and many people claimed they communicated with spirits who guided their minds and hands into recording stories, poems, and even voluminous novels. Here are six books supposedly dictated by ghosts that remain widely accessible today.


The Roman Emperor Julian was apparently so taken aback by how civilization developed in the 1500 years following his death in 363 CE that he felt compelled to express himself from beyond the grave via the printed word. Historical Revelations of the Relation Existing Between Christianity and Paganism Since the Disintegration of the Roman Empire, recorded by American writer Thomas Cushman Buddington, attacked Christianity as the root cause of what Julian supposedly saw as a world in utter disarray and desolation. Julian’s spirit condemned Constantine and his successors for embracing “a false religion” that bred violence and stagnated Europe’s development.

More realistically, this call to return to traditional Roman values was Cushman’s rather creative way to share his own grievances. Perhaps Cushman felt uncomfortable openly lambasting Christianity as an obstacle to moral and intellectual growth and found the emperor, who studied Platonic philosophy, a suitable figure to vocalize his concerns about the human race. In his preface to Julian’s writings, he praises the spirit, saying he “is of the most of the most pure and elevated character.”


William Sydney Porter, a.k.a. O. Henry. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons via Public Domain 

Born William Sydney Porter, the celebrated writer known as O. Henry died in 1910 with hundreds of short stories to his name. Yet even death could not halt his creative output, as eight years later, a collection of stories surfaced, all purportedly newly written by him. They arrived through the medium Albert Houghton Pratt, who claimed that he communicated with O. Henry through a ouija board. The very first conversation had supposedly occurred on September 18, 1917, and many more followed, with Pratt inviting friends to gather around the board to listen to O. Henry’s spirit rattle off tales. Pratt, in his opening comments to the book, describes O. Henry as a chatty spirit; apparently “overburdened with plots,” the ghost at times even exhausted his human companions as sessions stretched into late hours of the night. He would also self-edit his narrations: Once, he told Pratt to erase the last half of a story that had come to him too quickly and that fell short of his standards.

Pratt apparently had full control over his own thoughts throughout these sittings and found opportunities to pose his own questions. Once, he asked O. Henry what he thought about movie adaptations of his books. The spirit’s response: “Foolish rehash of yesterday’s ignorance.”

It appears Pratt anticipated the negative reception of O. Henry’s alleged latest writings, too. In an introduction signed by “Parma”—Pratt’s pseudonym—he brushed off nonbelievers and any skeptics who might have found the prose style different from O. Henry’s. The spirit world, Pratt explained, simply inspires a different voice; furthermore, the stories prove that a leopard can change its spots.


Pearl Curran. Image credit: Walter Franklin Prince via Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Also dictated through a ouija board was Hope Trueblood, just one of many works of fiction purportedly penned by the spirit Patience Worth in 1918. Arguably one of the most famous of spirit authors, Worth communicated through Pearl Curran, a housewife who lived in St. Louis. From 1913 through 1937, Curran dutifully recorded books, plays, poems, and short stories, at times receiving and scribbling thousands of words in one session.

Hope Trueblood, which told the story of a girl in Mid-Victorian England searching for her father, stands out from the rest of Worth’s oeuvre. The spirit was known for her archaic language and typically set stories far in the past: Telka occurred in medieval England; The Sorry Tale was set in the days of Jesus. Hope Trueblood unfolded in the present era (when originally published) and Worth employed plain English for the first time. Like many of her works, the novel received critical acclaim.

Hope Trueblood, however, also drew more skeptics than Worth’s previous works. What would the spirit of a 17th-century English girl (whom Indians murdered when she immigrated to America) know of Victorian life? Yet people had difficulty explaining how Curran, who had little education and opportunity for travel, wove these stories that contained detailed, accurate descriptions of distant settings. The mystery captivated Worth and Curran’s readers, and it went with Curran to her grave. When she passed away in 1937, the headline of her obituary in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat read “Patience Worth is Dead.”


Internet Archive // Public Domain

An American medium in Paris known as Mary McEvilly received messages from a mysterious spirit named Meslom during a number of sessions held between October 1919 and March 1920. They form To Woman, a book describing the duties of the female sex to help better the world and lead mankind to salvation. Lofty, abstract statements fill the 108 pages, and Meslom’s often-repetitive ramblings are arduous to read. Overall, the spirit argues that women are responsible for human's spiritual progression since they are in more in touch with nature and have greater intuition than men, who have more highly developed powers of reason.

McEvilly identifies Meslom as a man, and although he praises women for their sensitivities, he also betrays sexist attitudes. Man will always be master, and women should surrender any hope of gender equality, he tells McEvilly; although they have good judgment, women will never make laws; women who steadily pursue an education may weaken their innate connection to all that is good. Most rewarding, he suggests, would be for a woman to instead pray frequently for knowledge that leads to spiritual development and happiness.

Curiously, To Woman emerged a few months before women in the U.S. received the full right to vote. Little record of Mary McEvilly exists, but her book must have come off as backward to more than a few people even when originally printed.


Google Books // Public Domain

Victorians would find a chilling moral lesson in A Wanderer in the Spirit Lands, supposedly dictated to one A. Farnese by an Italian man who had recently passed away. Identified only as Franchezzo, his spirit fills over 300 pages with vivid descriptions of his lonely, miserable journey through the spirit world. Those dark travels were his deserved punishment, he writes, as he had lived a selfish life in worship of the material rather than of God.

Franchezzo initially ventures into the cold and decaying realms of hell, and only through laborious works of atonement eventually passes through bright heavenly gates. His tale serves as an engrossing sermon, warning its readers of the terrible fate that awaits if they do not start changing their sinful behavior while on earth—before it is too late.


Wikimedia Commons and Internet Archive // Public Domain

One of America’s most beloved spirits, Ouina was believed to be a young Native American girl who spread tens of thousands of uplifting messages from the spirit world. Beginning in 1851, she spoke through Cora Lodensia Veronica Scott, a famous Spiritualist from New York who had begun channeling spirits at a young age and launched a career as a trance lecturer (someone who performed public lectures supposedly received from the spirit world). Scott’s audience was often people who had lost loved ones; her romantic poems and tales painted the afterlife as a place filled with beauty and joy, offering mourners some comfort and rest from grief. Ouina’s Canoe was the first published collection of a handful of the spirit’s works, set to print at Christmas time as her gift to help and heal more people.

Along with verses filled with flowers, sunbeams, moonbeam fairies and morning stars, the book includes a biography of Ouina. Her own story is one of sorrow: Her mother had died in childbirth, and her father, chief of a tribe that resided along the Shenandoah River, decided to sacrifice her when she was about 15 to save his people from misfortune. With her touching history and messages of peace and love, it’s unsurprising that Scott’s guide received such great adoration, rather than cynical criticism.

(For five more books dictated from beyond the grave, click here.)

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.