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The First Words of 11 Famous People

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There are plenty of stories about the last words of famous people, some true, many apocryphal. The last words of John Quincy Adams were “This is the last of Earth! I am content.” Oscar Wilde’s were “Either this wallpaper goes, or I do.” For Douglas Fairbanks Sr. it was “Never felt better.” Less well known are the first words of the famous. Since no one can predict how famous a baby might turn out to be, the first words of the famous are often left unrecorded. But that doesn’t mean they are always lost to history. Here are 11 famous people whose biographies report their first words.

1. George Orwell: “Beastly”

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When Eric Blair (later to take the pen name George Orwell) was around 18 months old, stuck in bed with a severe bout of bronchitis, he uttered his first word, “beastly.” According to Gordon Bowker in his book George Orwell, the tot's mother recorded the event in her diary. The word stayed with him, appearing in every book he wrote except for the one most infused with the idea of beastliness, Animal Farm

2. Picasso: “Piz”

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Picasso could draw before he could speak, and he first learned to ask for things by drawing pictures of them. His first word was “piz,” his baby pronunciation of lápiz, the Spanish word for “pencil.” He would say it in order to get his mother to give him a pencil, Arianna Huffington wrote in Picasso: Creator and Destroyer.

3. Bill Clinton: “Pappaw”

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Bill Clinton’s baby book records his first word as “Pappaw,” the name he used for his grandpa. His father died before he was born, and he lived with his mother and grandparents. According to biographer David Maraniss in First in His Class, the word was “his first political decision, the safest choice, for if Billy had babbled something resembling ‘Mama,’ his mother and grandmother might have argued over which one of them he meant.” 

4. E.E. Cummings: “Hurrah!”

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E.E. Cummings’s mother kept a detailed diary of the life of baby Estlin. His first word was “Hurrah!” which he shouted while joining in with the chorus of the Civil War song “Marching Through Georgia” as his father sang it to him. By his second birthday, according to Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno in his biography of the poet, he could sing the whole thing, along with other songs (though, as his mother notes, he would often “make up words”).

5. Neil Young: “Dombeen”

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Neil Young’s father Scott wrote a biography of his son called Neil and Me, where he reports that Neil’s first word was “dombeen.” It meant “pudding, celery, pablum, porridge, and numerous other things he would point at while saying, encouragingly, ‘dombeen.’” Neil was also “a very fat child, mostly because he ate everything he could reach.”

6. Julie Andrews: “Home”

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Julie Andrews’s memoir begins, “I am told the first comprehensible word I uttered as a child was ‘home.’” According to her parents, she said it as they were pulling up to their house in the car. It came out with a slight rising intonation, as if she was testing out the word. Her parents wanted to be sure she had really said it, so they drove around the block in order to approach the house again, and she repeated the performance. “The word has carried enormous resonance for me ever since.”

7. F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Up”

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mother kept a baby book for him, where she recorded that he spoke his first word, “up,” on July 6, 1897, according to Andrew Turnbull's biography of the writer. She also recorded some of his memorable sayings, including, “Mother, when I get to be a big boy can I have all the things I oughtn’t to have?”

8. Amelia Earhart: “Papa”

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According to Susan Wels in The Thrill of It, Amelia Earhart’s mother kept a baby book called “Queer Doings and Quaint Saying of Baby Earhart” in which she had inscribed a quote from John Ruskin: “Shakespeare has no heroes; he has only heroines.” Baby Amelia was “tall with a beautifully shaped head and hands,” and her first word was “Papa.” Though her father’s struggle with alcoholism caused a lot of difficulty in her early life, he supported her ambitions, and even arranged for her first airplane ride.

9. Steven Spielberg: “Why?”

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Steven Spielberg’s aunt Natalie claimed in an interview that his first word was “why?” In his biography of the director, Joseph McBride quotes Natalie as saying, “He’d see a shadow on the wall and want to know why it was there…I used to baby-sit for him, and I can tell you, he was something. You just had to answer every question, and then there would be more."

10. Martin Amis: “Bus”

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In his book Experience, Martin Amis says, “apart from infantile renderings of ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’ and ‘Philip,’ ‘bus’ was the first word I ever uttered. And throughout my childhood in Swansea I had a helpless passion for the great blood-red double-deckers, and I would ride them, with no destination in mind, for hour after hour and day after day.”

11. Russell Brand: “Don’t do that.”

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Though Russell Brand is known for his unfettered hedonistic tendencies, his first words, “don’t do that,” were a request for a little restraint. Or maybe not. He asks in his memoir, My Booky Wook, “Why is that the first thing I said? What kind of infancy was I having that before I learned ‘mum,’ or ‘dad,’ I learned, ‘Could you stop? Whatever it is that’s going on, just pack it in…’ On reflection, it was probably because I’d just been told not to do something that I made this my debut proclamation, rather than because I had the pressing need to bring some unpleasant incident to a conclusion.” He adds, “more normal words like ‘bird,’ ‘clock’ and ‘mum’ did follow fairly soon after, and ‘tis good that I’ve got a mum who remembers all them things. In fact, my childhood can’t have been that bad if someone loved me enough to document my first words.”

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.