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How to beat writer's block

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I've got a lot of stuff on my writing plate these days, and as such I deal with my fair share of that dreaded -- but not usually fatal -- affliction: writer's block. I'm certainly not alone. Some of our greatest writers have battled the block, but every one of them had their own quirky way of dealing with it. Here are some of my favorites.

When Victor Hugo wasn't writing Les Miserables, he was miserables -- from writer's block. His cure? He instructed his servant to take away all his clothes for several hours, during which time he would only have access to a pen and paper. That way, he reasoned, there was nothing else he could do but write.

Graham Greene wrote exactly 500 words per day, even stopping mid-sentence if necessary.

Novelist and journalist Alan Furst had an unusual set of conditions he imposed upon himself early in his career, writing "with one eye closed, my feet tied together, left-handed, with a dull pencil."

Playwright Maxwell Anderson claimed he could only write while it was raining, and to make sure he was productive even when the weather was clear, he had a sprinkler system installed on the roof of his studio.

Film legends The Coen Brothers found themselves struggling with writer's block halfway through the script for Miller's Crossing, and rather than press on, they decided to work on a different script: Barton Fink. Three weeks later, it was nearly finished, and Fink -- I think it's their best work -- became a movie about a screenwriter struggling with writer's block.

Sherwood Anderson quit his job as the manager of a paint factory and left his family in 1906 to devote himself full-time to writing. Assuming he was a good investment, his publishers sent him checks each week until he asked them to stop, explaining "It's no use; I find it impossible to work with security staring me in the face."

Perhaps the most tragic of all writer's block stories is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's. By most accounts, he produced his best work in his mid-twenties. By age 32, he had begun to despair of his own diminishing abilities, writing in his journal "So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month! O sorrow and shame ... I have done nothing!" Coleridge wasn't the only one who felt he was wasting his life: his friends implored him to write again, but he insisted that the very idea filled him with "an indefinite indescribable terror." "You bid me rouse myself," he said to an incredulous friend. "Go, bid a man paralytic in both arms rub them briskly together, and that will cure him!" If Coleridge looked into any cures for writer's block besides smoking opium, none of them worked.

As for me, I have a number of strategies I employ to beat writer's block, though none are sure-fire cures: a brisk walk can be helpful; endless soloing on the guitar I keep near my desk; cat-petting; compulsive email-checking and/or web surfing (this definitely doesn't help); listening to music with no lyrics. How do you beat writer's block?

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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]