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5 Facts About the Wild Life of Call of the Wild Author Jack London

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If the name Jack London rings any bells at all, it likely brings to mind vague images of huskies and sleighs. The author’s most enduring novel, 1903’s The Call of the Wild, remains a staple for grade school reading across the U.S. But because his legacy has been so closely bound up with childhood reading, London’s adventurous and sometimes sordid life is much less familiar. When he died on November 22, 1916, at only 40 years old, he had lived more than most.

The Call of the Wild indeed captivated the country with its fascinating portrayal of the perilous Klondike gold rush. The story propelled London to celebrity status as a pioneer of American magazine fiction. Telling the tale of a heroic dog named Buck, the novel is a landmark in America’s long love affair with nature writing. By writing the experience of man’s best friend, the author managed to include many of the complex moral and social questions he grappled with. “The proper function of man,” he said, “is to live, not to exist.” A fascination with surviving and thriving runs through The Call of the Wild and the bulk of all London’s writing. So who was the literary genius behind this enduring classic, and what kind of life bred such nuanced ideas about human nature?

Born in San Francisco in 1876, London described his early years in terms of struggle, the theme that dominates his fiction and colored his strong convictions. In a body of work spanning adventure, memoir, and science fiction, he returned again and again to situations which tried the human (as well as canine) spirit.

London’s own life was a yarn for the ages as well. Revisiting a bit of the author’s wild ride can help us appreciate his uncanny insight into the world, and humanity’s never-ending search for a place in it.


Jack London’s life was anything but conventional. Never a stranger to hard work, he started earning wages for his family at a very young age. As a teenager, resenting a soul-crushing job on a cannery assembly line, London turned to sketchier means of making a living. Borrowing $300 from his boyhood nurse, he purchased a small boat to poach oysters in the privately controlled beds of San Francisco Bay.

A few years later, once more dodging the grueling manual labor of the unregulated industrial revolution, London took to the train tracks with a group of so called "road-kids." “I am a fluid sort of an organism,” he wrote, “with sufficient kinship with life to fit myself in ’most anywhere.” His drifting took him across the country and even landed him in a brief stint in prison. At 19, London wised up and went to high school.


The discovery of gold in the Yukon lured London with the promise of quick riches. Outfitted by his brother-in-law, he joined the rush in 1897 but proved an unlucky prospector. “I brought nothing back from the Klondike but my scurvy,” the writer later declared after wringing just a few dollars’ worth of gold dust from gold fields. However, he did manage to extract something precious from his experience: larger than life characters and a fascination with survival in nature’s extremes. These are the hallmarks of his writing which fueled his rise to fame.


When London tells of “an old song, old as the breed itself” that stirred his hero Buck, London conjures the idea of a collective unconscious that “harked back through the ages of fire and roof to the raw beginnings of life in the howling ages.”

When London sailed for Alaska en route to the Yukon, he brought with him books by Charles Darwin. The ruthless nature implied by Darwin’s theory of natural selection—survival of the fittest—abounds in London’s work. The Klondike of The Call of the Wild is quite literally a dog-eat-dog world, in which London lauds resourcefulness and strength of will above all else.


Much of London's success was garnered through magazine publishing; he gained celebrity and fortune from his writing alone as mass-scale printing became cheaper and more people became literate. It’s just one parallel to Ernest Hemingway, who followed in London’s footsteps. The two also share stylistic preferences for plain-spoken portrayals of nature and an economy of words—traits Hemingway is often given credit for popularizing despite coming after London. Indeed, certain passages of London’s finest prose, like his short story “To Build a Fire,” could easily be mistaken for Hemingway’s.


The writer’s unconventional formative years left a lasting impression on his worldview. Upon his return from the Klondike, London became involved in San Francisco’s burgeoning socialist political scene. He was apparently so fervent in his political beliefs, when London met and courted Russian-born socialist student Anna Strunsky in 1899, she likened meeting him to meeting a young Karl Marx.

Perhaps in spite of his sober realism towards the tough nature of life, or perhaps because of it, he wrote extensively on the need to protect the dignity of workers and the disadvantaged. It’s just part of the legacy left by one of America’s masters of popular fiction—an American pioneer in more senses than one.

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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”