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10 Tempestuous Writerly Romances

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Hemingway believed “the best writing [happens] when you are in love,” which might explain his serial marriages, while others found that romantic tumult spurred their creativity. Norman Mailer’s editor even claimed he needed violence to work up the courage to write. For them and eight other writers featured below, turbulent real-life relationships rivaled the dramas that played out on the page.

1. Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe

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The playwright’s rose-tinted glasses came off just two weeks after marrying the blonde bombshell when he witnessed her Jekyll & Hyde transformation on a movie set. Marilyn’s demanding behavior and explosive temper, fueled by booze and pills, thrust him into the reluctant roles of caretaker, psychiatrist, parent, and apologist. Miller didn’t produce a single work during their five-year marriage, instead becoming “the most talented slave in the world,” according to Norman Mailer. After Marilyn’s death, he wrote two thinly veiled plays about their turbulent relationship.

2. Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn

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Before tying the knot with journalist Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway made her sign a mock contract promising she wouldn’t leave him to go on assignment since he couldn’t stand being alone. Turns out, it was no joke. When his willful wife continued to report on the events of World War II rather than play happy homemaker with him, Hemingway saw red. “Are you a war correspondent or wife in my bed?” he petulantly cabled to Martha during one of her stints in the field. Despite his efforts to sabotage her career by literally stealing her job, Martha persevered with her career and ditched her demanding husband.

3. Tennessee Williams and Pancho Rodriguez

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Tennessee Williams’ affair with Pancho Rodriguez, an attractive, macho hotel clerk, was doomed almost from the start. Ironically, 25-year-old Pancho, a decade younger than the writer, wanted a stable, committed partnership, while Williams refused to give up sex with other men. He also couldn’t tolerate his boyfriend’s insecurities, which often led to stormy rows. Pancho once tried to run Williams down with a car when he (rightly) suspected the playwright was returning from an assignation, but what finally made Williams give him the boot was when he tossed his typewriter out a hotel room window. Writing A Streetcar Named Desire at the time, the playwright transferred some of his boyfriend’s volatile tendencies into the brutish, short-tempered Stanley Kowalski.

4. Leo and Sophia Tolstoy

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When Leo Tolstoy penned the first line of Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” he had no idea his own 50-year marriage would be immortalized as one of the unhappiest in literary history. Soon after finishing the novel, the mercurial writer experienced the mother of all midlife crises—but rather than resort to womanizing or flashy spending, he took a vow of poverty and chastity. Tolstoy’s radical transformation and devotion to his disciples led to fierce arguments with his long-suffering wife, Sophia. Ultimately, her spying and theatrics drove the writer away shortly before his death at a remote railway station.

5. Norman Mailer and Adele Morales

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Norman Mailer bedded Latina beauty Adele Morales within hours of meeting her, winning her over by quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald. Adele should have run for cover, but instead she became wife number two and set in motion a life of spiraling tragedy. Years of domestic violence, alcoholism, and drugs culminated in a shocking act: Mailer stabbed Adele in the back, literally, during a drunken rage at a party. Despite spending a month in the hospital recovering, she refused to press charges (admitting later that she was too scared), and Mailer got off with just five years’ probation.

6. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

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By the time the Jazz Age pair staked a stretch of sand on the French Riviera, their marriage was already on shaky ground. Zelda rocked the boat further by nearly running off with a French aviator, who Scott threatened to challenge to a duel. The golden couple’s mutually destructive chemistry spurred them to dangerous heights, as they dared each other to cliff dive and undertake other reckless acts. After they returned stateside, Scott took up with teenage actress Lois Moran and flaunted the relationship in Zelda’s face. If this sounds like the plot of a novel, well, the drama offered plenty of fodder for Scott’s Tender is the Night.

7. T.S. Eliot and Vivienne Eliot

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After spending a miserable night in a deck chair during his honeymoon, married life only got worse for T.S. Eliot. He finally called it quits after 18 years, cowardly ending the relationship in a letter from his lawyer. Heartbroken, his unstable wife Vivienne resorted to stalking him and even attempted to place an ad in the Times personals imploring him to return home. Her desperate measures failed to win him back, and she was eventually committed to an asylum. Eliot later admitted, “To her the marriage brought no happiness … to me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.” The bleak confessional poem was largely composed while he was being treated for his own breakdown in a Swiss sanitarium.

8. D.H. Lawrence and Frieda Weekley

When D.H. Lawrence and Frieda Weekley weren’t hitting each other, hurling dishes, or sparring in public, the pair had a hot and heavy sex life. Throughout their 15-year marriage, Frieda also indulged her libido elsewhere with her husband’s blessing, once seducing a Sicilian mule driver by stripping off her clothes and running naked through a vineyard. As the inspiration for Lady Chatterley and other characters, fiery Frieda believed she was equally deserving of the credit for her husband’s stories for having unleashed his passionate side.

9. Dylan Thomas and Caitlin Macnamara

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“Ours was a drink story, not a love story,” Caitlin Macnamara said of her marriage to Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. The pair met in a pub, where Thomas announced they would wed the moment he saw her. Their alcoholism and his rampant infidelities fueled Caitlin’s epic rages, sometimes leading her to bang her husband’s head against the floor so hard that he would pass out. When Thomas died at 39, after consuming a reported 18 whiskies, Caitlin lashed out at hospital nurses and pulled a four-foot crucifix from the wall before being hustled off in a straitjacket.

10. George Sand and Alfred de Musset

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Novelist George Sand courted controversy in 19th century France by writing racy novels, smoking cigars, cross-dressing, and dating younger men. Her on-again, off-again relationship with philandering poet Alfred de Musset took a dramatic turn during a trip to Italy when she dumped him for the physician who treated him for a mysterious ailment, likely an STD. When she returned to Paris, she reconciled briefly with the poet before breaking it off for good. As a parting gesture, she cut off her long, dark hair and sent it to him in a skull.

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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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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

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To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

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The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

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Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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