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The Early Jobs of 24 Famous Writers

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CBS/Landov

Everyone knows that Stephen King was a janitor and Ransom Riggs shared creepy old photos on mentalfloss.com. What did some other famous writers do before their big breaks?

1. Robert Frost was a newspaper boy, his mother’s teaching assistant, and a light-bulb-filament replacer in a factory.

2. William S. Burroughs was an exterminator. He really liked that job. He liked the word, too, and published a collection of short stories called Exterminator! not to be confused with a collaborative collection of stories with Brion Gysin called The Exterminator.

3. James Joyce sang and played piano while struggling to publish Dubliners. (It was rejected 22 times, so he sang a lot.)

4. Nabokov was an entomologist of underappreciated greatness. His theory of butterfly evolution was proven to be true in early 2011 using DNA analysis.

5. Margaret Atwood first worked as a counter girl in a coffeeshop in Toronto, serving coffee and operating a cash register, which was a source of serious frustration for her. She details the experience in her essay, “Ka-Ching!”

6. When Douglas Adams’ comedy-writing career stalled in the mid-70s, he worked as a hospital porter, barn builder, chicken shed cleaner, a hotel security guard and a bodyguard for an entire family of oil tycoons from Qatar.

7. Ken Kesey was a voluntary participant in CIA psych tests. Mostly these involved being unwittingly dosed with LSD. The one element of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest based on his experiences in the lab (a.k.a., hallucinations): Dr. Broom.

8. J.D. Salinger was the entertainment director on a Swedish luxury liner.

9. Harlan Ellison claims that by the age of 18, he’d been a "tuna fisherman off the coast of Galveston, itinerant crop-picker down in New Orleans, hired gun for a wealthy neurotic, nitroglycerine truck driver in North Carolina, short order cook, cab driver, lithographer, book salesman, floorwalker in a department store, door-to-door brush salesman, and as a youngster, an actor in several productions at the Cleveland Play House." It should be noted that he's a guy who makes stuff up for a living, too.

10. Zane Grey was a dentist. He really, really hated it. When he married his wife Dolly, he closed the practice he'd been running for nine years to focus on his literary career. The couple (and his mother-in-law and sister-in-law) lived off of Dolly’s inheritance.

11. Raymond Carver worked with his father at a sawmill after graduating from Yakima High School. Later, he would work as a janitor, delivery man and again at the sawmill to support his family while building his career as a short storyist.

12. Don DeLillo took a job as a parking attendant when he was a teenager. It was so boring that he became an avid reader, which led him to pursue a career in writing.

13. Haruki Murakami (whose most recent title is 1Q84) worked in a record store during college. Just before graduation, he and his wife opened a coffeehouse and jazz bar in Tokyo called the Peter Cat.

14. As a teen, John Grisham worked at a nursery, watering bushes for a dollar an hour. That is, until he was promoted to a fence crew, where he got a 50-cent raise. But Grisham decided “there was no future in it,” and took a job with a plumbing contractor.

15. Before writing 1984, George Orwell (born Eric Arthur Blair) was an officer of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. He shouldered the heavy burden of protecting the safety of some 200,000 people, and was noted for his “sense of utter fairness.”

16. Though one might expect the author of Moby-Dick to have some experience at sea, it’s interesting to note that Herman Melville was employed as a cabin boy on a cruise liner after his attempts to secure a job as a surveyor for the Erie Canal were thwarted. He made a single voyage from New York to Liverpool.

17. Kurt Vonnegut was the manager of a Saab dealership in West Barnstable, Massachusetts—one of the first Saab dealerships in the United States. He also worked in public relations for General Electric, and was a volunteer firefighter for the Alplaus Volunteer Fire Department.

18. While everyone knows about Jack London’s experiences in the Klondike Gold Rush, a time that heavily influenced his writing, it’s not-so-common knowledge that as a very young man, Jack London worked at a cannery, then became an oyster pirate. And his sloop was named Razzle-Dazzle.

19. A strange job, perhaps, but working as a tour guide at a fish hatchery led John Steinbeck to his first wife, Carol Henning. Later, he would work long hours at a grueling warehouse job until his father began supplying him with writing materials and lodging to focus on his literary career.

20. Perhaps most famous for being a self-proclaimed dharma bum, it’s no surprise that Jack Kerouac worked some odd jobs. These include but are not limited to: gas station attendant, cotton picker, night guard (detailed in On the Road), railroad brakeman, dishwasher, construction worker, and a deckhand.

21. Richard Wright, celebrated author of Native Son and “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” fell on hard times during the Great Depression, like almost everyone else. He secured a job as a postal clerk, only to be laid off. It was then, living on federal assistance, that Wright began making literary contacts and having work published in journals.

22. Coiner of the phrase and lauded author of Catch-22, Joseph Heller grew up very poor and had to work at a young age to help support his family. Before going on to literary greatness, he was a blacksmith’s apprentice, messenger boy, and file clerk.

23. Though it’s apparent in reading Joseph Conrad’s work (especially Heart of Darkness) that he lived a large part of his life at sea, it’s maybe less obvious that he spent part of that time involved in gunrunning and political conspiracy.

24. Harper Lee, author of one of the great American novels and winner of the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, had worked as a reservation clerk at Eastern Airlines for years when she received a note from friends: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” By the next year, she’d penned To Kill a Mockingbird.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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