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The Pioneering Female Sci-Fi Writer Whose Identity Was Kept Secret for 50 Years

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Many women writers have chosen to hide or disguise their identities by adopting a pseudonym—consider J. K. Rowling (who has written as Robert Galbraith), George Eliot, or the Brontë sisters, for example. However, the true identities of these gender-bending writers often became known in their lifetimes, while the same cannot be said for the pioneering British science fiction author Katharine Burdekin and her alter ego, Murray Constantine.

Burdekin began her writing career in the early 1920s, publishing a couple of realist novels under her own name before beginning to write books with a distinctly science fiction theme. Her first in the genre, The Burning Ring in 1927, explored the theme of time travel. In those days, a woman writing science fiction was unusual, and Burdekin gained some notice as well as some famous fans such as the prominent lesbian writer Radclyffe Hall, who wrote to Burdekin in praise of her work.

As political turmoil in Europe grew in the years before World War II, the themes of Burdekin’s writing became darker and more political. In 1934 she began publishing under the pseudonym Murray Constantine. No one knows for sure why she adopted the male name, but it seems likely that the pseudonym allowed Burdekin greater freedom to create more overtly political works and explore gender with less scrutiny. Some scholars, such as Robert Crossley, have suggested that Burdekin may have been influenced by the fate of contemporary writer Naomi Mitchison, a Scottish feminist who spent years battling to get her radical work, We Have Been Warned, published. When that book was finally released in 1935, its open discussion of sexuality and gender politics horrified many, in part because it had been penned by—gasp—a woman.

Freed from the constraints of writing under her own identity, Burdekin began to explore dystopian futures and themes of gender fluidity. In 1937, her most acclaimed work, Swastika Night, was published. Considered one of the first dystopian novels ever written, the book imagined the continuation of Nazism in an alternate future where women were reduced to lesser beings, kept like cattle and used only for breeding. Such was the power of the nightmarish future imagined in the book that during World War II a special edition was published with a note from the publisher, saying that the author “has changed his [sic] mind about the Nazi power to make the world evil ... he further feels that Nazism is too bad to be permanent.” Swastika Night has since come to be seen as a significant work of literature, one whose dark imaginings of a fascist future presage George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, published more than a decade later.

Burdekin ultimately published four novels as Murray Constantine, the last in 1940. Though she continued writing, she published nothing from that year on and remained obscure, known only for the novels she wrote as Katharine Burdekin early in her career. In 1955 she suffered an aneurysm and came close to death. She survived, but remained bed-ridden until her death in 1963.

In the 1980s the academic Daphne Patai [PDF], now of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, became interested in the work of Murray Constantine while researching utopian and dystopian novels. Patai was familiar with Burdekin’s earlier novels and began to note the similarity in style between Burdekin and Constantine. Patai contacted the original publishers of Swastika Night, Victor Gollancz, persistently questioning Constantine’s real identity. The publishers finally confirmed what Patai had suspected—Burdekin and Constantine were one and the same, a fact that had remained secret for some 50 years.

Patai knew that after Burdekin’s marriage had crumbled in 1922 the writer had gone on to form a life-long partnership with a woman. The scholar managed to contact Burdekin’s partner, who was happy to share her memories of the author as long as she remained anonymous. The pair began a correspondence that revealed much about how Burdekin had worked—at great speed, never spending longer than six weeks writing any one novel. Before starting a project, Burdekin would become withdrawn and stop eating, then enter a sort of frenzy, which her partner described as almost like automatic writing, whereby the words seemed to spill unbidden from Burdekin’s pen. After she had completed a book, Burdekin would fall into a depression.

In 1986, Patai visited Burdekin’s partner at the house they had shared in Suffolk. While there, Burdekin’s partner retrieved from the attic a trunk full of Burdekin’s unpublished writing. As Patai read through the material, she was excited to find a complete manuscript that seemed to have been written in the 1930s. The novel, The End of This Day’s Business, serves as a counterpoint to Swastika Night, presenting a world in which peace-loving women ruled while men have lost all sense of their power and history.

In 1985, after Patai had revealed Burdekin’s true identity, Swastika Night was reissued by the Feminist Press under her real name. In 1990, The End of This Day’s Business was published, introducing the world to a fascinating feminist utopia, although the author points out that a world that subjugates any group of its citizens can never be free. Writing years before the contemporary trend for dystopian sci-fi, Katharine Burdekin was a woman well ahead of her time. Today, she is remembered as a pioneer whose genre- and gender-bending anticipated contemporary movements, and whose dark imaginings still have the power to chill.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]