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10 Famous Literary Characters Based on Real People

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“Write what you know,” they say, so it makes sense that many authors take a good look at friends and family when creating characters for their books.

1. Mark Twain once admitted that he wasn’t terribly creative in creating Huckleberry Finn - he based the character almost precisely on his childhood friend Tom Blankenship. From his autobiography:

"In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only really independent person—boy or man—in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us. And as his society was forbidden us by our parents the prohibition trebled and quadrupled its value, and therefore we sought and got more of his society than any other boy's."

Sadly, according to the editor’s notes in Twain’s posthumous autobiography, Blankenship was repeatedly arrested for theft and died just five years after Huckleberry Finn was published.

2. When Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road, he was really writing about his own cross-country exploits with his Beat Generation buddies. For example, the selfish Dean Moriarty represents Neal Cassady, close pal of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead (among others). In fact, the character’s name is Neal in the original On the Road scroll. But that’s not the only character Cassady inspired: Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe all took inspiration from Cassady.

The real Neal died at the age of 41 after being found comatose by a railroad track in Guanajunto, Mexico, in 1968.

3. Even as one of the wittiest female characters in literary history, Nora Charles from The Thin Man doesn’t hold a candle to her inspiration, Lillian Hellman. Lillian was author Dashiell Hammett’s lover for 30 years, but she was also a respected playwright, screenwriter, author and outspoken political activist. Hammett apparently told Hellman that she was the inspiration for his female villains as well.

4. It’s almost hard to imagine that the furious and completely insane jilted bride of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations has a flesh-and-blood counterpart. But she does - in fact, there are at least three that might fit the bill.

Real-life Miss Havisham #1: Eliza Emily Donnithorne, an Australian woman who thought she was getting married in 1856. When she was stood up by the groom, she refused to change anything about the house; the wedding feast even sat out until it rotted into non-existence. Legend has it that Donnithorne never left the house again.

Potential Havisham #2: Elizabeth Parker. This Shropshire, England, woman was also jilted on her wedding day and became quite reclusive afterward. Dickins was known to visit Shropshire, and the fact that Miss Parker’s house was called Havisham Court seems like it must be more than coincidence.

Havisham the Third: Madame Eliza Jumel, Aaron Burr’s second wife. It’s said that Jumel may have gone a little crazy in her desperate attempts to break into New York high society; after finally throwing a successful dinner party for Joseph Bonaparte, she supposedly left the banquet and place settings out for decades to commemorate her social acceptance.

5. The wealthy Philomena Guinea of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar was based on Plath’s own rich benefactor, Olive Higgins Prouty. Prouty was a novelist probably best known now for Now, Voyager.

6. The modest grave of Elizabeth Pain in Boston’s King’s Chapel Burying Ground holds a secret if you look at it closely. Some believe the “A” inscribed on the stone shows that she was “whipt with twenty stripes,” though it was for the murder of her child, not for adultery. She was found innocent, by the way, but received the punishment anyway - even in death. The damning mark may have served as inspiration for The Scarlet Letter author Nathaniel Hawthorne. There’s also a record of one Hester Craford who was severely flogged for “fornication” with a man named John Wedg in 1669. At the very least, Hawthorne may have borrowed her name.

7. As a neighbor of the Alcott family in Concord, Mass., Elizabeth Hoar served as the model for Beth March in Little Women. Hoar was also good friends with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who liked to call her “Elizabeth the wise.”

8. The character of Ford Prefect isn’t based on a real-life person, exactly, but a real-life object. Douglas Adams once explained that his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy alien had “skimped a bit on his preparatory research" of Earth and thought he was choosing an inconspicuous name for himself. Adams later explained further, saying that Prefect saw vehicles swarming the streets of our little planet and “had simply mistaken the dominant life form.” The Ford Prefect, by the way, was a British car produced from 1938-1961.

9. Yes, Virginia, there really was a Severus Snape, and his name was almost as wizardy: John Nettleship. Nettleship was J.K. Rowling’s own teacher, perhaps one she didn’t enjoy very much based on this description of Snape:

“Snape is the very sadistic teacher loosely based on a teacher I myself had, I have to say. Children are very aware and we're kidding ourselves if we don't think that they are - that teachers do sometimes abuse their power and this particular teacher does abuse his power. He is not a particularly pleasant person at all.”

Nettleship wasn’t thrilled with the comparison when he found out about it, saying, “I knew I was a strict teacher but I didn't think I was that bad." He later came to terms with it enough to write a book called Harry Potter's Chepstow about various locations from Rowling's school days that may have inspired people and places from her successful series. Nettleship died of cancer in 2011.

10. Anyone who has had a younger sibling they considered evil can probably relate to Eoin Colfer’s inspiration for Artemis Fowl. His little brother, Donal, was "a mischievous mastermind who could get out of any trouble he got into,” and seeing a picture of Donal in a dapper first communion suit reminded Colfer of a tiny James Bond villain.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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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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