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The Quick 10: The Real People Behind 10 Literary Characters

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We’ve learned the background of some children’s book characters here on the _floss (Eloise may have been based on Liza Minnelli, for example), but today we’re uncovering the inspiration for some characters in more adult novels.

1. Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind was distant cousins with Doc Holliday. It’s supposed that she based the character of Ashley Wilkes on him.

2. Moby-Dick was based on a real-life albino sperm whale from the 1830s named Mocha Dick. Mocha Dick was infamous for attacking ships and surviving harpoon injuries. He was killed in 1839.

3. Branwell Bronte is thought to have served as the inspiration for Benjamin Braddock in the 1963 novel The Graduate. Although Bronte died more than 100 years before the novel was written, his taboo relationship with a much older, married Mrs. Robinson has raised suspicion that author Charles Webb was a bit of a Bronte historian.

4. There are several theories as to where Ebenezer Scrooge came from, but one of the strongest contenders is that he was based on a miser named John Elwes. Dickens mentioned him in later letters and the man who illustrated Dickens’ work, John Leech, chose to portray Mr. Scrooge in a manner that closely resembled Elwes. Do you see the resemblance?

5. The appearance of Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables was based on a picture of Gibson Girl Evelyn Nesbit. Lucy Maud Montgomery didn’t know this at the time, though – she simply pulled a picture out of a magazine that she felt best embodied her idea of Anne.

6. Robert Langdon, it may come as no surprise to you, is Dan Brown’s idealized version of himself. Brown and his most famous character share a birthday, a hometown and the same school. His name was based on John Langdon, professor of typography at Drexel University. The real Langdon created the ambigrams for Brown’s book Angels and Demons.

7. Daisy Buchanan of The Great Gatsby is believed to be a thinly-veiled version of Ginevra King, the daughter of a wealthy Chicago businessman. Their very different social standings drove them apart, and during his relationship with King, Fitzgerald wrote the phrase, “Poor boys shouldn't think of marrying rich girls,” which was later used in the movie version of Gatsby.

8. In his post-Gatsby novel, Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald based his main characters on people not very far from his heart – himself and his wife, Zelda. He mirrored their life right down to affairs, psychiatric treatment and even his feelings about his own professional failure.

9. Dill Harris from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is believed to be based on her childhood best friend and neighbor. That kid, Truman Persons, just happened to grow up to be famous in his own right – you know him better as Truman Capote.
10. A real James Bond? Maybe. Ian Fleming never confirmed that his superspy was ever based on anyone with the exception of James Bond, ornithologist, whose name he borrowed. But historian Keith Jeffery has speculated that 007 was based in part on Fleming’s friend Bill Dunderdale, an MI6 agent who seems to have shared Bond’s affinity for women and cars.

I know there’s many more out there – do you know of any real-life inspirations for famous literary characters?

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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]