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10 Famous Residents of McLean Psychiatric Hospital

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Fifty years ago today, Sylvia Plath committed suicide by sticking her head in a gas-filled oven while her children slept a room away. Her first suicide attempt 10 years earlier landed her at McLean psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, which she famously chronicled in The Bell Jar. Plath wasn’t McLean’s only famous resident; at one point, it was the place for the well-to-do poets, artists and musicians to go to have nervous breakdowns while still enjoying horseback riding, rooms with private fireplaces and tea served from a silver service. It’s still ranked the #2 psychiatric hospital in the country.

It wasn’t all like that, of course, which you know if you watched Girl, Interrupted, another piece based on a patient’s stay at McLean. Here’s how Plath and nine other names you’ll know ended up at McLean.

1. Sylvia Plath

In 1953, Plath wedged herself in a crawl space underneath her mother’s house and took 40 sleeping pills. For the next three days, while she existed in what she later called a “whirling blackness that I honestly believed was the eternal oblivion,” police, family, and total strangers searched for her. After she was discovered, having vomited up most of the pills, her mother had her admitted to McLean, most of which she retold in The Bell Jar.

2. Susanna Kaysen

Much like Plath, the author of Girl, Interrupted drew on her 18 months at McLean—where she was sent for depression—in the late ‘60s to write her most famous novel.

3. Anne Sexton

Much to her chagrin, Sexton started her life at McLean as a teacher, not a patient. She told friends she wanted to “enroll” at McLean, in part to have the same experience fellow poets Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell (see #7) did. She taught weekly poetry seminars in 1968, then moved on to become a creative writing lecturer at Boston University in 1969. Sexton finally got her enrollment at McLean in 1973 for a five-day examination period. She committed suicide a year later.

4. James Taylor

Finding himself sleeping for 20-hour periods at a time, James Taylor checked himself into McLean to be treated for depression as a senior in high school. He later wrote a song about his experience: “Knocking ‘Round the Zoo.”

5. Ray Charles

After being busted for pot and heroin possession in 1964, Charles was told he could forego a harsher sentence if he checked into McLean for observation every six months. According to Charles, his visits weren’t too bad. “The nicest part was meeting one of the nurses who I got next to a little later on,” he reported in his autobiography, Brother Ray. He also kept himself—and the whole building—entertained when he found a piano and another piano player “who could really wail.”

6. Robert Lowell

Admitted to McLean in 1958 after a series of stays in other mental hospitals, the Pulitzer Prize winner was the first to write about McLean in a poem called “Waking in the Blue.” He stayed there four times over a span of eight years.

7. Steven Tyler

The Aerosmith frontman found himself doing a couple of stints at McLean’s East House, starting in 1985, when he was trying to get sober.

8. David Foster Wallace

At the age of 27, and with a successful novel already under his belt, Wallace spent four weeks at McLean for depression and substance abuse. It’s not the hospital he describes in Infinite Jest, however. That one—“Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House”—is really a take on Granada House in Brighton, Connecticut, the halfway house Wallace went to immediately following his stay at McLean.

9. John Nash

The brilliant mathematician who was the subject of the film A Beautiful Mind spent a month at McLean in 1959. “I wasn’t there long enough,” he later said. During his short stay there, however, they did diagnose him with paranoid schizophrenia. He was in and out of various psychiatric hospitals until 1970.

10. Marianne Faithfull

Like Steven Tyler, Faithfull spent time in McLean in the mid-80s, following treatment at Hazelden Clinic in Minnesota for addiction.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]