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10 Works of Literature That Were Really Hard to Write

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Instead of judging works of literature based on their artistic merit, we’ve decided to rank them by degree of difficulty. These 10 authors may not be Shakespeare, but they sure had vaulting ambitions.

1. The Story That Will Never Be an e-Book
Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright

Some might call Gadsby a “love” story. But Ernest Vincent Wright wouldn’t have used that word. Instead, he described his novel as a story of “strong liking” and “throbbing palpitation.” That’s because in 1939, Wright gave himself one restriction: He promised to write Gadsby without using the letter E.

Wright wanted to prove that a great author could work around such a restriction and still tell a gripping story. To prevent any stray Es from entering the text, he tied down his typewriter’s E key, and then put his expansive vocabulary to the test. The result is an astounding feat of verbal gymnastics. While vividly describing a wedding scene, Wright manages to avoid the words “bride,” “ceremony,” and even “wedding” (he calls it “a grand church ritual”). To explain away the verbosity of the language, he uses a narrator whose poor command of English and circumlocution even irritates the story’s other characters.

When the book was announced, one skeptic attacked Wright in a letter, claiming that the feat was impossible. “All right,” replied Wright in the book’s intro, “the impossible has been accomplished.” Sadly, Wright didn’t live long enough to revel in Gadsby’s critical acclaim. He died the year the book was published.

2. The Tale Told in the Blink of an Eye
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Many authors have struggled through illness and injury to write their masterpieces, but none more so than Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor-in-chief of French fashion magazine Elle.

In 1995, at the age of 43, Bauby suffered a major stroke and slipped into a coma. He regained consciousness two days later, but his entire body—with the exception of his left eyelid—was paralyzed.

Still, Bauby was determined to write. Using only his lucid mind and one eye, he began working on his memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Each night, he’d lie awake editing and re-editing the story in his mind, memorizing every paragraph as he hoped to relay it. By day, his transcriber would recite the alphabet to him over and over. When she reached a letter Bauby desired, he’d wink. Each word took about two minutes to produce, and during the course of a year, Bauby managed to tell his story of life in paralysis. His moving and often funny prose won critical acclaim, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly became a bestseller throughout Europe. Sadly, Bauby died of pneumonia in 1997, soon after the first edition was published in France. He missed not only the English translation, but also the award-winning film adaptation released in 2007.

3. The Poetry of Speed
Transcendence-Perfection by Sri Chinmoy

Before his death in 2007, Indian spiritual master Sri Chinmoy wrote at least 1,000 books, 20,000 songs, and 115,000 poems. Some he penned in his mother tongue, Bengali, and some in his second language, English. His poems won numerous awards and inspired countless writers and musicians. And while Sri Chinmoy was clearly a fast writer, he was never as quick as on November 1, 1975, when he wrote Transcendence-Perfection, a collection of 843 poems—all written in 24 hours.

How was Sri Chinmoy so prolific? He believed the key was meditation. As he once explained, “The outer mind is like the surface of the sea. On the surface, the sea is full of waves and surges ... But when we dive deep below, the same sea is all peace, calmness and quiet, and there we find the source of creativity.”

4. History’s Greatest Sonnet
"Washington Crossing the Delaware" by David Shulman

Etymologist David Shulman was a true lover of words. One of the most prolific contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary, Shulman tracked down the roots of Americanisms for more than 70 years. But those weren’t Shulman’s only contributions to the world. During World War II, he served in the army and used his language skills to crack Japanese codes. His most astonishing feat as a wordsmith, however, occurred in 1936, when he composed the sonnet "Washington Crossing the Delaware."

What makes the poem so remarkable is that every one of Shulman’s 14 lines is an anagram of the title. What’s more, the lines are rhyming couplets, and they tell a story, more or less. Here’s an excerpt:

A hard, howling, tossing water scene.
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
“How cold!” Weather stings as in anger.
O Silent night shows war ace danger!

As poetry, it isn’t exactly Walt Whitman. But then, Whitman was never this good with anagrams.

5. The Story of Youth
The Young Visiters, by Daisy Ashford


Daisy Ashford’s novella about Victorian society is considered something of a classic. First published in 1919, the work is still in print and has been turned into a movie. But if that doesn’t sound remarkable, consider that Ashford was only 9 years old when she wrote it.

To preserve the authenticity of the story, publishers decided to leave in Ashford’s plentiful grammar mistakes and spelling errors (the title, for example). They also added a foreword by Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie to assure readers that this was no hoax. Barrie reminded people that the novel was indeed written by a little girl, who was “hauled off to bed every evening at six.”

6. The Most Visionary Story Ever Told
Futility by Morgan Robertson

Occasionally, literature is prophetic. H.G. Wells’ stories, for instance, predicted video recordings, portable television, aerial bombings, and a Second World War starting in 1940 (only one year late). And a 1941 comic book written by Gil Fox described the bombing of Pearl Harbor in surprising detail, precisely one month before it happened.

But perhaps the most meticulously prophetic work of literature is Morgan Robertson’s short and poorly written novel, Futility. In it, Robertson describes the maiden voyage of a British luxury liner called the Titan, which claims to be unsinkable, but sinks anyway after hitting an iceberg. Nearly every detail resembles the story of the Titanic. Of course, nobody thought about that when Futility was released in 1898, a full 14 years before the Titanic set sail.

Futility wasn’t Robertson’s only prescient piece of literature. In 1912, three years before his death, he wrote Beyond the Spectrum. Much like Gil Fox’s tale, Robertson’s story predicted a Japanese sneak attack on an American fleet in Hawaii, and the resulting war between the two countries.

7. Writing by Ear
Anguish Languish by Howard L. Chace

Sinker sucker socks pants, apocryphal awry. If those words don’t make sense together, try saying them out loud: “Sing a song of sixpence, a pocketful of rye.” Now imagine a whole book written like this, and you’ve got Howard L. Chace’s 1940 collection of nursery rhymes and fairy tales, Anguish Languish. The work contains classics such as Marry Hatter Ladle Limb and Ladle Rat Rotten Hut, which begins with the immortal line, “Wants pawn term, dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner ladle cordage.” Although Anguish Languish is playful, there was also a serious side to it. As a French professor, Chace used the stories to illustrate that, in spoken English, intonation is almost as important to the meaning as the words themselves.

8. James Joyce’s Deaf Translation Jam
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce

James Joyce wrote his final novel, Finnegans Wake, during a 17-year period in Paris, finishing the work just two years before his death in 1941. During that time, Joyce was nearly blind, so he dictated his stream-of-consciousness prose to his friend, Samuel Beckett. That led to some unexpected results. For example, during one session, Joyce heard a knock at the door, which was too quiet for Beckett to perceive. Joyce yelled to the visitor, “Come in!” so Beckett added “Come in!” to the manuscript. When Beckett later read the passage back to Joyce, the author decided that he liked it better that way.

After several such sessions, Finnegans Wake became one of the most impenetrable works of English literature. But the experience didn’t just affect Joyce’s novel; it seemed to have a lasting effect on Beckett’s writing, as well. Beckett would go on to become a leading playwright in the Theatre of the Absurd, where his characters often spent their entire time on stage sitting in the middle of nowhere, hoping that someone would hear their voice.

9. Six Powerful Words
“Baby Shoes”

While the following anecdote may be apocryphal, whoever did write “Baby Shoes” has forced writers forever after to consider the economy of words. Today, the work has inspired countless six-word memoir and story competitions, proving that a story’s brevity is no limit to its power.

According to legend, while having lunch at New York City’s famous Algonquin Round Table, Ernest Hemingway bragged that he could write a captivating tale—complete with beginning, middle, and end—in only six words. His fellow writers refused to believe it, each betting $10 that he couldn’t do it. Hemingway quickly scribbled six words down on a napkin and passed it around. As each writer read the napkin, they conceded he’d won. Those six words? “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

10. The Art of Writing by Committee
The President’s Mystery Story by Franklin Roosevelt and seven other novelists

Many American presidents have written books, but only Franklin Roosevelt has contributed to a mystery novel. At a White House dinner in 1935, Roosevelt pitched his story idea to author Fulton Oursler. Roosevelt’s tale started like this: A man named Jim Blake is trapped in a stale marriage and a boring job. He dreams of running off with $5 million and starting over with a new identity.

Unfortunately, the President hadn’t worked out one major plot point: How does a man with $5 million disappear without being traced?

To solve the problem, Oursler formed a committee of five other top mystery writers: Rupert Hughes, Samuel Hopkins Adams, Rita Weiman, S. S. Van Dine, and John Erskine. Each author wrote a chapter and ended it with Jim Blake in a terrible situation, which the next author was left to resolve. Despite being the work of a Washington committee, the end result was surprisingly successful. The President’s Mystery Story was serialized in a magazine, published as a book, and even turned into a movie in 1936.

Yet, the writers never came up with a solution to Roosevelt’s original problem. That didn’t happen until 1967, when Erle Stanley Gardner wrote a final chapter to a new edition of the book. In it, the secret to Jim Blake’s mysterious disappearance is discovered by Gardner’s most famous character, Perry Mason.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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