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Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged

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by Greg Barnhisel

It's a novel! It's a philosophy! It's the instruction manual for a crazy cult! Atlas Shrugged could be all of those things. Then again, maybe it's just about a little Russian girl who really hated growing up around Bolsheviks.

Ayn Rand was a woman who knew how to sell philosophy. As the founder of Objectivism—a belief in the power of the individual and "the virtue of selfishness"—Rand had something going for her that great thinkers like Aristotle and Kierkegaard didn't: She got her start in Hollywood.

After immigrating to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1926, Rand managed to sign on with famed film producer-director Cecil B. DeMille as an extra in his movie The King of Kings. An aspiring screenwriter, she soon had the connections she needed to begin hawking her wares. By 1932, she'd sold her first screenplay and overseen the production of one of her plays. In other words, Ayn (pronounced "Eye-n," not "Ann") knew how to produce for a general audience—not just the intellectual elite. So when she delved into philosophy and began to formulate the ideas that would eventually become Objectivism, the resulting works (namely The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged) read more like blockbuster melodramas than philosophy dissertations.

The Rise of John Galt

Rand's ability to write for a general audience is certainly one of the reasons Atlas Shrugged landed the No. 1 spot on Modern Library's readers' poll of "100 Best Novels of the 20th Century." But just like the crowd-pleasing popcorn flicks that don't have a prayer of winning an Oscar, literary critics often treat Rand's novels like something the cat coughed up. Atlas Shrugged was nowhere to be found in the "official" Modern Library ranking, and in 2000, a columnist for the liberal-minded Salon.com slammed it as "a novelization of Mein Kampf by Barbara Cartland."

Whether you see it as a 1,200-page doorstop or the book that changed your life, Atlas Shrugged is a good introduction to Rand's philosophy. The story takes place in what is essentially the author's vision of the future America. After liberals gain control of the government, federal officials immediately begin imposing regulations on businesses that are intended to help the weaker members of society. As a result, the main character, railroad executive Dagny Taggart, is forced to give up her company's most lucrative route to a smaller operator. Meanwhile, steelmaker Henry Rearden is prevented from selling his latest metal invention because the government believes it might hurt his competitors by giving him an advantage. Laws are passed that require all patents to be signed over to federal officials, and businessmen are no longer allowed to focus their companies on profits. Instead, the government tells them they must work to benefit society, even if that means running their operations at a loss.

Soon, all of the capitalists have their hands tied. The so-called "looters" take charge, causing the natural order of the economy to be subverted, and millions are given jobs because they need the work, not because they can actually perform the labor. With incompetents and slackers staffing important positions, America's infrastructure begins to fall apart. Railroads stop, bridges fall, cities go dark, and a mysterious pirate named Ragnar Danneskjöld pillages the few ships that still carry goods to America.

Willing to abandon their assets for the government to squander, America's executives and businessmen begin to disappear altogether. When Dagny finally finds the "striking" industrialists in a secret Colorado valley, she sees they've created their own society based on pure selfishness and greed. The valley has banks, mines, artists, oil producers, engineers—everything that made America great in the first place. Its founder and guiding spirit, John Galt, is also there, serving as a kind of magnetic prophet and the leader of the strike. Later, Galt is arrested and subjected to torture after he takes over the airwaves and speaks out against the government. But the strikers—now joined by Dagny—rescue him and return to the valley. Eventually, the collectivist practices governing the country lead to total collapse. Galt, Dagny, and the rest of the strikers, safe in the valley, prepare their return.

The Author as An Icon

rand.jpgAtlas Shrugged, and the philosophy of Objectivism itself, is an impassioned, individualistic response to what Rand saw as the evil of collectivism—the wastefulness of human beings expending energy to help the weak and the lazy. That might sound harsh, but it's important to understand that Rand came by her hatred of collectivism through painful personal experiences. Born in 1905 in St. Petersburg, Russia, a young Ayn Rand (her birth name was Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum) grew up in the midst of the Russian Revolution. As part of the government's many efforts to promote the socialist cause, she witnessed the Bolsheviks confiscating her father's pharmacy—thus taking away the fruits of all his labor and using them, at his expense, for the collective good.

Not surprisingly, Ayn Rand came to admire the United States as a truly free land, and she immigrated in 1926. After her screenwriting stint, she started writing novels, beginning with We the Living in 1936. In 1943, she hit bestseller status with The Fountainhead—her first real public foray into putting Objectivist ideas into a fictional plot. Incredibly, the book was rejected by 12 publishers before finally being accepted. But the wild success of The Fountainhead only whet Rand's appetite to delve further into Objectivism, so when she finally finished Atlas Shrugged in 1957, publishers were more than willing to pick it up.

Although a great financial success, Atlas Shrugged was also her last work of fiction. After its publication, Rand devoted herself fully to writing and editing Objectivist works and to running "The Collective," her ironically named circle of close (some say cultish) admirers. And while The Collective broke apart in the late 1960s, when it became a little too "free-love" for some of its members, that hasn't stopped the legions of Rand followers from growing. Today, Ayn Rand fans vastly outnumber the membership of The Collective, and they are a devoted bunch. The Ayn Rand Institute (a.k.a., The Center for the Advancement of Objectivism), founded after Rand's death in 1982, publishes a wide variety of Randian works. And they all continue to inspire passionate devotion in their fans.

Atlas Shrugged continues to inspire new readers, as well. On one hand, it's easy to read the novel as a period piece. After all, when it was published in the 1950s, liberal New Deal programs were growing steadily, and unions were at the height of their power. To readers, it must have seemed like the "looters" were taking over. But the book takes on a very different meaning today. With most politicians in both parties praising the efficiencies created by deregulation and privatization, Rand's nightmare vision might seem increasingly remote. Many, however, see it as a sign that perhaps Ayn Rand's ideas are starting to have the widespread impact she'd hoped for.

We Are Randian, Hear Us Roar

For a philosophy broadly known as Objectivism, there sure are a lot of subjective opinions out there about it. Plenty of people dig it and plenty dog it, but those in the former category definitely seem to have a common thread—they're kind of a big deal. The following are just a few of the A-list Randians out there.

John Stossel, ABC correspondent and co-anchor for 20/20. Speaking to The Daily Princetonian, Stossel credited Rand with helping to lead him to his libertarian beliefs.
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reagan.jpgClarence Thomas, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Thomas has spoken of being raised on an intellectual diet of Horatio Alger, Richard Wright, and Rand, but "I tend to be really partial to Ayn Rand," he told Reason magazine in 1987.
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Ronald Reagan, conservative hero. Reagan was drawn to Rand's ideas early on in his political career, largely for their defense of capitalism and individualism. However, he admitted that he never read Atlas Shrugged. Still, many of Reagan's advisers, both in California politics and in the White House, were also Randians.
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Neil Peart, drummer for the Canadian prog-rock band Rush. An outspoken Randian, Peart acknowledged "the genius of Ayn Rand" in the liner notes to the band's breakthrough 1976 album, 2112.
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Angelina Jolie, movie star and Goodwill Ambassador for the U.N. Refugee Agency. Jolie has spoken of being "very into Ayn Rand" and is currently shepherding a film version of Atlas Shrugged through development. And, yes, she'll play Dagny Taggart.
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Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve and a member of Rand's inner circle (The Collective) during the 1950s and 1960s. While he was never an orthodox Objectivist, he did agree with many of Rand's free-market principles.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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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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