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The Quick 10: 10 Celebrities Named in the Communist Scare

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It was 60 years ago -June 8, 1949- that the FBI named a slew of celebrities as members of the Communist Party. They may have been right to suspect some, and others were just completely ridiculous, but either way, here are 10 people who were accused at some point during the Red Scare.

redchannels1. Helen Keller. We think of her as nearly saint-like woman based on the amazing story of how she learned to communicate despite being blind and deaf. But as an adult, she was fairly radical in her political thinking and the FBI definitely took notice. Although a "formal investigation" never took place, the FBI did monitor Keller enough to know that she sent "loving birthday greetings to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a prominent communist leader, on her 65th birthday."
2. Leonard Bernstein, the composer and conductor, fell under the FBI's watchful eyes for more than 30 years. He was targeted as a communist during the whole McCarthy era, even though he swore on an affidavit that "I am not now or at any time have ever been a member of the Communist Party." The FBI was never able to officially verify that he was a member of the Communist Party, but they continued to monitor his activities when he supported Vietnam protestors and became friends with a member of the Black Panthers. In fact, in 1970, J. Edgar Hoover documented his intentions to run a smear campaign against Bernstein specifically because of his Black Panther ties.

3. Burl Ives was called out in the 1950 Red Channels pamphlet, a brochure that named 151 supposed Communists in the entertainment industry who should be avoided. He adamantly denied being a Communist and said that any union activity he had participated in was simply to keep in touch with "working folk." Because of his cooperation with the House Unamerican Activities Committee, he was removed from the blacklist. However, friends such as Pete Seeger felt that Ives had sold them out in order to get back to work and severed ties with him for many years.

4. Pete Seeger was a member of both the Young Communist League and the Communist Party and made no bones about it. "My father, Charles Seeger, got me into the Communist movement," he said, but later apologized for "following the party line so slavishly, for not seeing that Stalin was a supremely cruel misleader." When he was called to testify in front of HUAC in 1955, Seeger refused to plead the Fifth, but also refused to name any names. He was held in contempt of Congress and was sentenced to serve 10 years in jail for it, but the conviction was overturned. Still, Seeger was required to tell the feds anytime he intended to leave the Southern District of New York. To this day, he considers himself a Communist, saying, ""I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it."

huac5. Artie Shaw, also named in the Red Channels pamphlet, was brought before HUAC in 1953 for statements supporting the Communist Party and for allegedly attending a couple of meetings. Shaw didn't dispute that he had been present at a number of gatherings, but said that it was simply because of his interest in social justice and world peace. "I hate to admit that I was a dupe, but I guess I was," he told the committee. But if you believe Olivia De Havilland, Shaw was definitely behind Communism all the way. During a meeting of the Independent Citizens' Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions when Shaw started talking about how the Soviet constitution should be the standard-setter when it came to democracy. Years later, she recalled, "He said to me, 'Have you read the Russian constitution?' And I said, 'No I haven't -- and how recently have you read ours?'"

6. Zero Mostel was named to the list of suspected Communist Party members in 1952, and although he didn't appear before HUAC until 1955, the accusation was enough to kill his career. When he finally got to testify, Zero took the opportunity to exercise the comedic chops which had been in hibernation since the public accusation "“ when the committee's counsel asked, "Mr. Mostel, are you or are you not a Communist?", Zero leapt out of his chair. He acted like he was grabbing for the attorney's throat and started yelling, "That man called me a Communist! Get him out of here! He asked me if I'm a Communist! Get him out of here!" He pretty much owned the trial after that, mocking the counsel and indirectly refusing to name names (directly refusing to name names would have landed him a jail sentence like Pete Seeger's). Needless to say, this didn't win them over, and he remained blacklisted.

chaplin7. Charlie Chaplin was such a worry to the FBI during the Red Scare that J. Edgar Hoover tried to have him deported. When he left the country in 1952 to promote his movie Limelight, Hoover collaborated with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to revoke Chaplin's re-entry permit. Instead of fighting it, Chaplin made the choice to stay in Europe, making his home in Switzerland. He issued the statement,

"...Since the end of the last world war, I have been the object of lies and propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who, by their influence and by the aid of America's yellow press, have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted. Under these conditions I find it virtually impossible to continue my motion-picture work, and I have therefore given up my residence in the United States."

He only ever came back to the U.S. very briefly "“ to collect an Honorary Oscar in 1972.

8. Langston Hughes was involved in several Communist-supported groups and activities, but was never actually a party member (according to him, anyway"¦ obviously HUAC felt otherwise). Because the Communist Party of the United States often used his poetry in their newspaper and because Hughes had expressed interest in Marxist ideas in the "˜30s, Hughes was called to testify in 1953. He refused to give up any names, but freely answered all questions around his own writing and political views. He said he had never joined the Communist Party because "It was based on strict discipline and the acceptance of directives that I, as a writer, did not wish to accept." After the hearing, he started to distance himself from some of his more radical poetry.

welles9. and 10. Orson Welles and Dolores del Rio. Despite being a strong Roosevelt supporter "“ then-wife Rita Hayworth once told Hedda Hopper that Welles was going to South America on a secret mission for Roosevelt "“ Orson Welles was considered one to watch by the FBI. A 1941 memo from the Bureau stated that "This office has never been able to establish that Welles is an actual member of the former Communist Party or the present Communist Political Association, he has consistently followed the Communist Party line and has been active in numerous front organizations." They placed him on a list of people who should be taken into custody should the U.S. have a national emergency, and it was recommended that his phone be tapped. Although he said otherwise, many speculate that the Red Scare and all of the accusations were the reason that Welles left the U.S. for Europe from 1948 to 1956. Del Rio was presumably blacklisted simply for her close relationship with Welles "“ they dated from 1938 to 1941.

Other famous blacklisted Hollywoodites included Danny Kaye, Dorothy Parker, Lena Horne, Gypsy Rose Lee, Burgess Meredith, Ruth Gordon, Eddie Albert, Richard Attenborough, Barbara Bel Geddes, and, of course, the Hollywood Ten. There were hundreds of people named to the list, so I couldn't have possibly told stories on all of them (plus, "The Quick 300 is a bit oxymoronic). If I missed a good one, share it in the comments!

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]