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A Writer Grows in Brooklyn - part 1

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Truman Capote lived in Brooklyn by choice, and so did I, once... Brooklyn Heights, to be more exact. Actually, the Northern part of Brooklyn Heights, if you want to be even more exact. Or, more precisely, Cranberry Street —the little three-block long street where the movies Moonstruck and Three Days of the Condor were filmed.

When I first moved to Brooklyn from SoHo some twelve years ago, friends called me a pioneer, as if I'd just announced that I was picking up and moving to Chechnya or Gaza. Now, of course, it's considered hip to live in Brooklyn. What people don't realize, however, is that to many writers, Brooklyn always was the hip place to live. For instance, my little brownstone on Cranberry street was two blocks from where Thomas Paine lived and wrote. I was two blocks from where Walt Whitman typeset his Leaves of Grass. I was five blocks from where Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's. I was 20-some-odd blocks from where Marianne Moore penned What are Years? Five blocks from where Hart Crane wrote The Bridge, 13 blocks from where Thomas Wolfe wrote Of Time and the River. Four blocks from where Betty Smith wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Ten blocks from where Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salseman. Three blocks from where Anais Nin lived. Five blocks from where Norman Mailer wrote The Naked and the Dead. One block from where Carson McCullers wrote Ballad of the Sad Café. Two blocks from where W.H. Auden lived and wrote. Sixteen blocks from where Norman Rosten lived, and less than a block from (my brownstone actually shared a backyard with) the house that Paul and Jane Bowles called home for more than a decade.

And there are a pantload more.

Alfred Kazin, Tennessee Williams, Chaim Potok, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Cristina Garcia, Derek Walcott, Willaim Styron, Hubert Selby, Phillip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Paul Auster, Harriet Beacher Stowe and Isaac Basheva Singer have all, at one point or another, lived and worked in Brooklyn. As well as a whole bunch of young authors like Elizabeth Gaffney, Spike Lee, Dave Eggers and Rick Moody. The Jonathans: Jonathan Ames, Jonathan Safran Foer and Jonathan Letham. And up-and-coming authors like Lucinda Rosenfeld and Amy Sohn.

The question is: Why?

Why have so many writers been drawn to Brooklyn ? What is it about the largest of the five boroughs that bedazzles and beguiles? What's the allure?

Is it that Brooklyn tends to leave you alone—to stay off your back, as a friend of mine is fond of saying? Or is it "the way in which the low lay of the land and open light here, the surfeit of visible sky, puts the bold frenzy and built-in self-importance of city living in some perspective, isolates you on sidewalks or at windows in your own thoughts beneath the wide empty press of a day," as Brooklyn native and author Charles Siebert has written? Or is it just cheaper rent?

Go ahead and let us know your thoughts on the subject in the comments below and be sure to tune back in tomorrow for the second part of this 2-part post. I can't promise I'll have THE answer to the question, but I will have some pretty interesting factoids about some of these great authors. Oh, and by the way, I may have been slightly off on some of the above "two blocks from where..." stuff. Exact addresses were hard to find, but I should be pretty close with most of them.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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