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The Greatest Interviews: F. Scott Fitzgerald Meets the New York Post

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The Guardian has compiled a list of the greatest interviews of all time, plus some of the more interesting things that happened when the tape was no longer rolling. This week, we're offering a up a few highlights from the series.

In 1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald sat down with the New York Post. This was not a happy interview. In truly breathless Post style, the interview revealed a desperate, restless Fitzgerald, wandering through anecdotes and shaking with alcoholism.

Here's how Michael Mok, the Post's interviewer, begins the meat of the article:

"A series of things happened to papa," [Fitzgerald] said, with mock brightness. "So papa got depressed and started drinking a little."

What the "things" were he refused to explain.

"One blow after another," he said, "and finally something snapped."

The interview ran in 1936, just four years before Fitzgerald would die of an apparent heart attack, a condition greatly hastened by his longtime addiction to alcohol. At the time, Fitzgerald's bright flaming literary star was lamentably, pathetically fizzling. Confronted with the steepening decline of his career, health, and personal life, Fitzgerald had been writing autobiographical articles for Esquire magazine, ruminating on his life as a "cracked plate."


To his interviewer, he explained, he had lost his confidence. "˜"A writer like me," he said, "must have an utter confidence, an utter faith in his star. It's an almost mystical feeling, a feeling of nothing-can-happen-to-me, nothing-can-harm-me, nothing-can-touch-me."'


Fitzgerald's constant companion at this time was his nurse, who dealt with both his physical pain -- a broken shoulder the result of an accident on a diving board -- and his mental anguish, his addiction to alcohol. At one point during the interview, a jittery Fitzgerald leaves the room and the nurse takes a moment to caution the interviewer: "'Despair, despair, despair,' said the nurse. 'Despair day and night. Try not to talk about his work or his future. He does work, but only very little - maybe three, four hours a week.'"

As the interviewer ostensibly tries to play it straight -- what does Fitzgerald think of modern writers? What does he make of the flapper generation he so brilliantly described in his novels? -- Fitzgerald becomes the embodiment of pathos. He's glitteringly brilliant, spilling little bon mots just as he would his gin, but it's a window on the utterly depressing demise of a talented writer.

Regarding the "jazz-mad, gin-mad generation" that had provided Fitzgerald his material and his fame, the writer -- and his interviewer -- had this to say:

"Why should I bother myself about them?" he asked. "Haven't I enough worries of my own? You know as well as I do what has happened to them. Some became brokers and threw themselves out of windows. Others became bankers and shot themselves. Still others became newspaper reporters. And a few became successful authors."

His face twitched.

"Successful authors!" he cried. "Oh, my God, successful authors!"

He stumbled over to the highboy and poured himself another drink.

Stories circulated that the article had so depressed him that Fitzgerald attempted suicide after reading it. And reading the article today, it seems as if Mok was gunning hard for Fitzgerald. But in the context of 1936, Mok's disappointment in the writer stands to reason: For much of America, the Great Depression had been a sudden, violent hangover from a decade of Jazz Age decadence -- the poster child of which had been bright young things like Fitzgerald and his tragic wife Zelda. Unflattering in the extreme, the interview is a public dressing-down of a writer who, a good number of Americans seemed to believe, needed a scolding. Or at least a mirror.

In a foreword to the Guardian's reprinting of the interview, writer Jay McInerney wrote, "Mok is remembered as one of the villains of the Fitzgerald story, one of history's cloddish butterfly crushers." Perhaps unfairly, McInerney argues -- while Mok certainly pulled no punches in his depiction of the dissipated writer, Fitzgerald seems unable to control himself, to keep himself from playing the role of a dissipated writer.

Whatever else it did, this interview solidified the tragic mythos that surrounded Fitzgerald, recasting him as one of the characters from his own novels.

Previously: Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando (by Truman Capote). Tomorrow: Princess Diana tells all to Martin Bashir.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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