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The Incredible Eccentricities of 20 Great Writers

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Truly great artists will do whatever it takes to find their muse.

1. John Cheever

The short story guru was like everyone else: He woke up, put on a suit, and went to work. And unlike everyone else, he took an elevator down to his apartment building’s basement, stripped off all his clothes, and wrote in his underwear.

2. Gertrude Stein

Stein liked lounging in the passenger seat of her Model-T Ford, penning prose while her partner Alice Toklas drove around doing errands.

3. Virginia Woolf

Woolf used a standing desk before it was cool. (She wanted to work on the same playing field as her sister, who was an artist.) Although she decided to take a seat later in her career, Woolf loved purple and wrote most of Mrs. Dalloway in purple ink.

4. Sir Walter Scott

Scott penned most of the poem Marmion in his head while riding a horse.

5. James Joyce

The modernist master liked writing in bed while on his stomach. He also always wore a white coat for practical reasons. Joyce was nearly blind, and the bright coat reflected light and helped him see. As his eyesight worsened, he wrote on cardboard with colored crayons.

6. Friedrich Schiller

Schiller worked late at night, so to keep the sandman away, he’d dip his feet in ice-cold water. But it gets weirder: Schiller always wrote with a bunch of rotten apples stowed in his desk drawer. He said the smell motivated him.

7. Alexander Dumas

Dumas insisted that all of his literary output be color-coded: Blue paper for fiction, pink paper for articles, and yellow paper for poetry.

8. Demosthenes

To keep on task, the Greek orator would shave half of his head because it forced him to stay inside and work. Plutarch writes, “Here he would continue, oftentimes without intermission, two or three months together, shaving one half of his head, that so for shame he might not go abroad, though he desired it ever so much.”

9. Lord Byron

Byron was basically an eccentric amateur zookeeper. At school, he kept a bear in his dorm room. (He leashed it up and took it for walks around campus—he even tried to get it a fellowship.) Later on, according to Percy Shelley, Byron kept eight dogs, three monkeys, five cats, some peacocks, eagles, crows, and falcons inside his house.

10. Yukio Mishima

Nominated for three Nobel prizes, Mishima actually founded an emperor-worshipping cult for teenage boys. In 1970, he stormed the Japanese Defense Headquarters with a sword and four of his boys. After failing to overthrow the government, he committed suicide.

11. Oscar Wilde

Wilde didn’t care what Victorian England thought. He’s rumored to have once walked down the street with a lobster on a leash.

12. John Milton

Milton started his day at 4:00 a.m. He spent the first hour thinking in solitude. Then an aide would read him the Bible for half an hour, afterward dictating whatever Milton said. (Milton was blind, and those dictations would become Paradise Lost). Whenever the aide was late, Milton griped, “I want to be milked. I want to be milked.”

13. Honoré de Balzac

No one worked harder than Balzac. He’d wake up at 1:00 a.m., write for seven hours, take a nap at 8:00 a.m., wake up at 9:30 a.m., write again till 4:00 p.m., take a walk, visit friends, and call it a night at 6:00 p.m. To fuel all that writing, he threw back upwards of 50 cups of coffee per day.

14. Franz Kafka

To keep his mind fresh, Kafka exercised in front of the window—naked.

15-20. Plenty of other writers liked working in the buff…

Benjamin Franklin took “air baths,” writing his essays and letters in a cold room while nude. Agatha Christie and Edmond Rostand both liked writing in the bathtub. James Whitcomb Riley wrote naked so he wouldn’t be tempted to walk to the bar, and when Victor Hugo felt distracted, he removed all his clothes so that he was totally alone with pen and paper. As a writing warm-up, D.H. Lawrence would climb mulberry trees in his birthday suit.

Of course, all these peculiar work habits pale in comparison to the amazing drive and creative vision displayed by epic author and filmmaker Eric Jonrosh. For a clearer window into Jonrosh’s greatness, tune in to The Spoils of Babylon on IFC on January 9 at 10/9c.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]