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9 Famous Authors Supported by the New Deal

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In 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Federal Writers’ Project under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, which was itself the largest New Deal agency. Just as the WPA provided jobs in construction, utilities, arts, and welfare, the FWP funded more than 6600 writers, editors, and researchers who compiled local histories, oral histories, ethnographies, and other works.  The FWP produced upwards of 275 books, 700 pamphlets, and 340 articles, leaflets, and radio scripts. Here are a few famous writers who contributed.

1. Studs Terkel

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Terkel employed the oral history techniques he learned while at the FWP as a model for his books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good War.

2. May Swenson

The poet and playwright worked as a folklorist in New York City, interviewing department store employees about their personal lives and working conditions. 

3. John Cheever

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The Republican author and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize was a reluctant participant in the FWP and described his editorial duties as fixing “the sentences written by some incredibly lazy bastards.”

4. Richard Wright

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Among other items, the author of the seminal Native Son wrote an essay on Harlem for the New York City guide for the FWP. 

5. Conrad Aiken

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The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and novelist contributed to the literature, theater, and music sections of Massachusetts: A Guide to Its Places and PeopleHe quit after five months, deriding most of his colleagues as “hopelessly incompetent, except for the photographers.”

6. Eudora Welty

Pulitzer Prize-winner and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Welty served as photographer for the Mississippi volume of the American Guide series.

7. Ralph Ellison

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The author of Invisible Man is quoted in a Library of Congress document that his work on the FWP helped him in the conveyance of dialect: “I developed a technique of transcribing that captured the idiom rather than trying to convey the dialect through misspellings.”

8. Saul Bellow

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At age 21, the Nobel laureate’s first FWP job was inventorying Illinois periodicals at the Newberry Library. 

9. Zora Neale Hurston

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The famed folklorist and author of Their Eyes Were Watching God had already published two works with origins in the folklore of the American South when she was hired to collect Florida folklore by the FWP.

BONUS: John Steinbeck

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Although he worked for the WPA rather than the FWP specifically, Steinbeck was a fan of the FWP and its fabled American Guide series, which he described as “compiled … by the best writers in America, who were, if that is possible, more depressed than any other group while maintaining their inalienable instinct for eating.”

Additional Sources: Oregon Encyclopedia, On the MediaNew York Times, PBS, NewDeal.Feri.org, Library of Congress

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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