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John Ueland/Alamy

Ezra Pound's Kickstarter Plan for T.S. Eliot

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John Ueland/Alamy

T.S. Eliot was poised to be the top poet of his generation. But first he had to be rescued from his day job.

In 1921, suffering from a “nervous disorder,” T.S. Eliot took a three-month hiatus from his day job. The 33-year-old had been working as a clerk in the London sub-basement of Lloyds Bank for four years. But with the luxury of time, the part-time poet focused his attention on completing his magnum opus, “The Waste Land.”

Released in 1922, Eliot’s haunting and defiantly oblique work is a landmark of modernism; even at its most impenetrable, one reviewer admitted that Eliot’s work possessed “the music of ideas.” Ezra Pound, too, was impressed. Convinced of Eliot’s genius, Pound reckoned that the grunt work was smothering his creativity. “Some of us consider Eliot’s employment in a bank the worst waste in contemporary literature,” Pound bemoaned.

Of course, financing poetry is a problem as old as poetry itself. For Emily Dickinson or Lord Byron, the answer was simple—being born into the right family relieved them of the worry. Others turned to hack writing to stock the till. Walt Whitman penned a temperance tract while guzzling cheap wine. Edgar Allan Poe cranked out newspaper filler like “Why Not Try a Mineralized Pavement?” When William Wordsworth landed a decidedly unromantic job as a tax collector, he could take comfort in the knowledge that Geoffrey Chaucer had been a customs comptroller in the 14th century. “There’s no money in poetry,” Robert Graves once observed, “but then there’s no poetry in money either.”

Pound was out to change that. He wanted to help Eliot write for a living instead of squandering his talents at the bank, but he was skeptical that members of high society would open their purses for such edgy writing. “We can’t expect illiterate, newly rich millionaires to pay for things they have not the taste to enjoy,” he scoffed. Instead, he hatched a revolutionary plan to crowdsource a fund for Eliot.

He dubbed his campaign Bel Esprit and started by drawing up a brochure. In it, he asked “subscribers” to pledge about $50 a year. The goal was to support Eliot for five years at $1,500 a year—the bare minimum he’d need to quit his job and do nothing but write.
Pound proved to be an ideal fundraiser.

An opinionated and fiery poet, the Ph.D. dropout (who sometimes wore a sombrero over his wild red hair) was a tireless advocate for fellow artists. And he was quick to stress that his plan was not charity. “I can’t come back too STRONGLY to the point that I do NOT consider this Eliot subsidy a pension,” he wrote to one donor. “I am puke sick of the idea of pensions, taking care of old crocks. ... I put this money into him, as I wd. put into a shoe factory if I wanted shoes.” To Pound, Bel Esprit was an investment in poetry, and he expected it to yield dividends to all humanity. He wasn’t the only one. Pound managed to convince a number of artist friends—including the poet William Carlos Williams, himself working a day job as a New Jersey pediatrician—to pledge. Ernest Hemingway, too, helped raise funds but then blew the cash at a racetrack.

Things were progressing nicely until Pound’s plan hit a major snag. It turned out that Eliot didn’t want to quit his job! He liked being employed by the bank and actually took pleasure in his work.

Pound should have seen this coming. Aldous Huxley once declared Eliot “the most bank-clerky of all bank clerks.” Virginia Woolf joked that he was so stiff and buttoned up that he’d attend informal lunches “in a four-piece suit.” Not only did Eliot appreciate the steady paycheck, but Lloyds meant a solid pension for him and his ailing wife, Vivienne. She, too, didn’t want him to quit. “If he did take such steps,” Vivienne warned, “I should bear him a considerable grudge.”

Still, Eliot wasn’t averse to support—at least, until the plan leaked to The Liverpool Post, which falsely claimed that he’d already taken the donations and ungratefully kept his job anyway. The Chicago Daily Tribune and The New York Tribune picked up the story, with the latter mocking that “To coddle an author is to reduce him to the level of a Pekingese.”

Eliot was mortified. Fearful for his Lloyds job, he demanded a retraction from The Liverpool Post. The paper complied.

History generally has Bel Esprit dying there—but in fact, Pound hadn’t quite given up. He removed Eliot’s name but still stumped for Bel Esprit to Poetry magazine and The New York Times. When an Ohio high school English teacher inquired about it in August 1923, Pound still sounded hopeful that Eliot would accept the funds. And later that year, he did: two installments amounting to about $550 found their way into his account. Soon thereafter, Pound dropped out of sight, and with him, all plans for Bel Esprit vanished too.

As it turned out, Eliot didn’t need Bel Esprit. In 1925, he left Lloyds—“the prospect of staying there for the rest of my life is abominable to me,” he conceded—to take a job as an editor at a publishing house. Pound’s faith in him would be amply confirmed when the former bank clerk won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.

Perhaps the Bel Esprit plan was simply ahead of its time. Today, websites like Kickstarter fund poets' dreams by cold-calling the masses, treating each donation as an investment. One recent appeal for the Line Assembly Poetry Tour and Documentary mustered $18,888 on the slogan “Six poets. One van. No quit.” Ezra Pound would certainly approve.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]