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Can You Feel Lit? T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land

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ts-eliot.jpgReading T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land is like sustaining a concussion: it's going to hurt, you won't always understand what's going on, you may hallucinate or lose consciousness, and it's best if you lie down for a bit. The poem is basically an extended exploration of man's angst—except in this case, the man is T.S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets and most erudite men of the 20th century.

Should you come away from The Waste Land with an aching noggin, take heart: a prominent literary critic once said that the poem couldn't be "read," only "reread"—in other words, only on repeated readings does the poem start to make sense. Should that prove too daunting, at your next cocktail party why not distract your friends by passing along these nuggets about the origins and ideas behind The Waste Land.

1. Show off. Eliot had a top-notch education—he attended prestigious boarding schools, got his B.A. at Harvard, studied at Oxford and the Sorbonne, and would have gotten a Ph.D. from Harvard had he bothered to defend his thesis. He learned Latin, Greek, French, German, Sanskrit, and the ancient Indian language Pali; he studied French Symbolist poetry, Buddhist philosophy, Renaissance theater, and epiphenomenalism (whatever that is).

The problem? Eliot couldn't resist flaunting all this knowledge. As a result, The Waste Land is a minefield of footnotes. Before you even get to the first line, you've got an allusion to Malory's Morte d'Arthur, a quote in Greek, and another quote from Dante's Purgatory in Italian. Later you find whole passages in German, French, Italian, and Sanskrit. The take-away message? Never play Trivial Pursuit with T.S. Eliot.

2. Nix the Dickens. Eliot's close friend Ezra Pound is famous in literary circles for his extensive revisions of the manuscript of The Waste Land. One of his changes? To cross out the original title, "He do the Policemen in Different Voices."


It's just Eliot slipping in another obscure allusion, this time to Charles Dickens' last novel Our Mutual Friend. The quote comes from the character Mrs. Betty Higden, referring to the talents of an orphan named Sloppy:

'I aint, you must know,' said Betty, 'much of a hand at reading writing-hand, though I can read my Bible and most print. And I do love a newspaper. You mightn't think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.'

In other words, Sloppy changes his voice when he reads the newspaper, "doing different voices" for different characters. Eliot is here pointing to his own practice of writing different "voices" of a wide range of characters in The Waste Land. Clever—but a bit of stretch. Pound knew what he was doing.

3. The vivacious Viv. Most of the "characters" in The Waste Land are figments of Eliot's imagination—except for one: his wife, Vivien. Eliot met Vivien Haigh-Wood in Cambridge in 1914 and married her three months later. Haigh-Wood was a socialite flapper working as a governess; Eliot was a 26-year-old over-educated self-confessed virgin. The couple quickly discovered they were sexually incompatible, so Haigh-Wood (known as Viv) consoled herself by having an affair with Eliot's mentor, philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Eliot learned later that Viv's family had attempted to forestall the marriage because of Viv's history of mental instability. He struggled to endure Viv's screaming outbursts, anorexia, constipation, neuralgia, and "catarrh of the intestines" (whatever that might be). Eliot describes her hysterical speech in The Waste Land:

'What shall I do now? What shall I do?'
'I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
'With my hair down, so. What shall we do tomorrow?
'What shall we ever do?'

Not surprisingly, the relationship didn't last. Eliot headed to the U.S. in 1928 on a lecture tour: while out of the country, he had his attorney send Viv a letter announcing their separation. On his return to England, he went into hiding to escape her. An increasingly unstable Viv started hanging around outside the doors of Faber & Faber where Eliot worked; the famous poet had to escape out the back door. After alienating friends and family and joining the British Union of Fascists, Viv's brother Maurice had her committed to an insane asylum, where she died in 1947.

Feminist biographers have attempted to restore Viv's reputation—certainly, anyone would find marriage with the fastidious Eliot difficult. (He found the very thought of menstruation repulsive and thought shaving in front of his wife was too intimate.) In any case, we can thank Viv for putting a great poet through great anguish—out of which came great poetry.

4. Don't explain. Eliot was adamant in his refusal to help eager readers interpret his poems. Of The Waste Land, he said, "I wasn't even bothering whether I understood what I was saying."

5. The Groucho Connection. Remember that Saturday Night Live skit with Chris Farley where he would interview famous celebrities simply by describing parts they had played and quoting from their movies—to their great unease? Now substitute T.S. Eliot for Farley and Groucho Marx for the succession of celebrities.

Rather surprisingly, the Nobel Laureate adored Marx movies, and in 1964 Eliot achieved one of his life goals by having the great comedian and his wife to dinner. A somewhat intimidated Groucho boned up on Eliot's poetry and reread King Lear just in case, but all Eliot wanted to do was quote Groucho's old lines. Eliot refused to talk about his poetry, or Lear for that matter, and before long the Marxes were making their excuses and heading for the door.

See Also...

Can You Feel Lit? Macbeth

Elizabeth Lunday writes about art, architecture and literature for sources such as mental_floss and her blog, The Dilettante. Her first book, Secret Lives of the Artists: What Your Teachers Never Told You About Master Painters and Sculptors, will be released in Fall 2008 by Quirk Books. It contains the outrageous and uncensored profiles of the world's greatest artists, complete with hundreds of little-known, politically incorrect, and downright bizarre facts—like who died of syphilis, who beat his wife, and who was convicted of murder. She's also written about a wide range of other topics from archeology to wastewater management, and once you've written about wastewater management, you can write about anything.

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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]