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The Working Dead: The Posthumous Career of Kurt Vonnegut

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Kurt Vonnegut was one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century. All signs point to the author holding the same place in the 21st century, despite the fact that he died April 11, 2007. The late Vonnegut has accomplished more dead than most of us will alive, from social media celebrity to indie film success. We’d expect nothing less from the ironic author who wrote in Slaughterhouse Five, “How nice—to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.”

1. RT @Kurt_Vonnegut

Vonnegut's a Twitter star. The @Kurt_Vonnegut Twitter account (not verified, natch) tweets the late writer's quotes and has 169,666 followers and counting. Meanwhile, he only follows @TheMarkTwain. (The two writers probably would’ve followed each other in real life, if they’d had the chance. Their work is frequently compared. Vonnegut called Twain an “American saint” and even named his first son after him.) Like any major celebrity, Vonnegut also has a few other Twitter accounts dedicated to him, including @Zombie_Vonnegut. If you think Vonnegut’s funny in 140 characters, you should read one of his books.

2. Check Out the Vonnegut Library

Vonnegut said, "The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries." In fall 2010, his hometown of Indianapolis opened the Vonnegut Memorial Library in his honor. The building is part library, part museum and showcases a replica of Vonnegut's writing studio and some of those famous rejection letters he talked about. Writer Corey Michael Dalton recently lived, worked, and slept in the front window for "Locked Up with Vonnegut," part of Banned Books Week. Guests can type messages on the late writer’s typewriter, which are then tweeted from the Twitter account @kurtstypewriter.

3. All Eyez on Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut’s the Tupac of America literature—the posthumous hits just keep coming. His latest book, We Are What We Pretend To Be: The First and Last Works, contains one of Vonnegut's first novellas and the establishing chapters of his last novel. Three other collections have been published since his death: a collection of short stories, drawings, and essays called Armageddon in Retrospect in 2008; the unpublished short story collections Look at the Birdie in 2009; and While Mortals Sleep in 2011. Back in April, Vonnegut's writings from his college newspaper days were published in the Amazon eBook, Kurt Vonnegut: The Cornell Sun Years 1941–1943. What's next? 50 Shades of Kilgore Trout?

4. Digital Luddite


Photo Courtesy of davitydave's flickr photostream.

Before the release of Look at the Birdie, some of Vonnegut's unpublished short stories were made available as e-books. Now you can access all of his work via e-reader. Vonnegut was a proud Luddite who wrote in longhand and used a typewriter long after most writers switched over to a computer. We wonder if the book-loving technology critic would have found the digitalization of his work—and books, in general—ominous, or a good use of “damn fool computers.”

5. The Third Adaptation’s a Charm

Vonnegut's 1961 short story "Harrison Bergeron" is set in 2081 when all Americans are forced to be equal in not only rights, but also abilities. No one’s smarter, richer, or ahem, more prolific than anyone else. The dystopic work has been adapted for the screen three times. Vonnegut praised the short film version Harrison Bergeron released a year before his death. He might've liked the latest reworking even better: the 2009 short film 2081 is the closest adaptation of “Harrison Bergeron” yet. The sci-fi film runs 25 minutes and cost only $100,000 to produce, yet it's one of IMDB's most popular short films.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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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