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5 Writers with Gender-Bending Pseudonyms

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When Penguin handed Dean James a three book contract for his Cat in the Stacks mystery series, it came with one condition: He’d have to get a sex change.

Okay, not really. But to connect with the traditional mystery genre’s primarily female fan base, the publisher decided that James should adopt a female pseudonym; he chose Miranda James. For a previous mystery series he’d taken the androgynous nom de plume Jimmie Ruth Evans. “I picked Evans so it would get me on the shelf next to Janet Evanovich,” he remembers.

Miranda James has found commercial success that eluded Dean James and Jimmie Ruth Evans: a string of New York Times bestsellers and an upcoming spinoff series.

Here are five famous writers who, mostly for marketing reasons, changed genders for their bylines and book covers.

1. Ann Rule

Ann Rule is probably the bestselling true crime writer in history, but when she began reporting on murders for pulp magazines in the late 1960s, it was still a field dominated by men—so she wrote as Andy Stack at the request of her editor.

When The Stranger Beside Me—the book about her friendship with Ted Bundy and the realization that he was a serial killer—became a runaway bestseller under her own name, her name alone seemed destined to make the next few books she already had contracts for instant bestsellers.

But she stayed with Andy Stack. “The Stranger Beside Me was doing very well, so my agent said that these books got such small advances I should not put my name on them,” she later explained. “I stayed with 'Andy Stack,' but after a while I put them under my real name and they sold much better."

2. Ben Franklin

When this founding father wanted to draw attention to the injustice of women taking all the blame for children born out of wedlock, he published "The Speech of Polly Baker" in the April 1747 issue of The Gentleman's Magazine. He also wrote a gossip column under the name Alice Addertongue and he wrote letters to The American Weekly Mercury under the names Caelia Shortface and Martha Careful.

3. L. Frank Baum

Lyman Frank Baum is most famous for his Wizard of Oz series. But when he wanted to sell stories aimed at young girls, he was perfectly happy to adopt a female persona, and he used three: Edith Van Dyne, Laura Bancroft, and Suzanne Metcalf.

4. Bob Rogers

This married man found his calling writing romance novels—a genre read almost exclusively by women, few of whom are interested in reading stories by men. So he’s written 24 novels as a woman, mostly using the name Jean Barrett. How many other popular romance writers are secretly men? We may never know, because if they told us, their sales would plummet.

5. Lawrence Block

Block, most famous for his Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr crime novels, has had a career that’s spanned seven decades and he’s used a few names over that period: William Ard, Ben Christopher, Lee Duncan, Chip Harrison, Paul Kavanagh, Sheldon Lord, Andrew Shaw, B.L. Lawrence, John Warren Wells, and two women: Jill Emerson (he used that one for lesbian novels) and Anne Campbell Clarke. Block, who got his start writing pornographic material, once explained it this way: “Sometimes I used pen names because I was being cute ... But most of the pseudonymous books bore pen names because the work on which they appeared was generically second–rate.”

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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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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]

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