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19 Rare Recordings of Famous Authors

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Twenty years ago, it was impossible for most of us to listen to JRR Tolkien read Elvish or see Zelda Fitzgerald grin at a camera or hear an inebriated Hemingway shout about pigeons. But today, these and other rare recordings of famous authors are just a mouse click away. Enjoy, you lucky ducks.

1. Ernest Hemingway

In this recording from 1950, Ernest Hemingway describes his novel Across the River and Into the Trees. He sounds drunk, which may explain the interesting vocal modulation and bursts of random yelling. Best part: “[she] enjoys herself very much, looking out of the upper windows and studying the action OF THE PIGEONS.”

2. JRR Tolkien

In this TV spot, watch Tolkien light a pipe, blow smoke rings, write and read Elvish, clap at fireworks, and answer questions about The Lord of the Rings in a thick, garbled accent. It’s not hard to see how this mind imagined worlds full of elves, wizards, and hobbits.

3. Raymond Chandler

In 1958, Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series, interviewed crime writer Raymond Chandler for the BBC. This is the only recording of Chandler’s voice. Listening to their conversation is like eavesdropping on two master genre writers talk shop. [Part 2, 3, 4]

4. Sylvia Plath 

While many stereotype Sylvia Plath as moribund and depressed, this interview reveals a sharp, enthusiastic person with an adroit ability to turn a phrase. “Poetry,” she says, “is a tyrannical discipline. You’ve got to go so far, so fast, in such a small space that you’ve just got to burn away all the peripherals.”

5. Walt Whitman 

Here’s Walt Whitman reading his poem “America.” It was taken from a wax cylinder recording Thomas Edison made in 1889 or 1890—although the recording’s authenticity is somewhat disputed. The last two lines of the poem are not read.

6. Langston Hughes

Watch the famous poet from the Harlem Renaissance read his poem "The Weary Blues," while the Doug Parker Band plays jazz in the background.

7. Virginia Woolf

This is the only known recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice. On April 29, 1937, she read an essay on words for a BBC radio series called “Words Fail Me.” It was published in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays in 1942. A sample: “Of course, you can catch [words] and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind.”

8. and 9. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald 

Here’s footage of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda sitting at an outdoor table, surrounded by friends and a dog. It’s a glimpse into the decadent lifestyle Fitzgerald made famous in his novels and short stories. Wait until the end, when Zelda glances at the camera and grins.

Bonus: Here’s Fitzgerald reading Shakespeare. 

10. Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay reads her poem “Love is Not All.” Her high-faluting accent and theatrical style may seem dated today, but in the 1920s, Millay’s reading tours regularly sold out to rapt crowds.

11. John Steinbeck

In this 1952 interview, John Steinbeck talked about writing The Grapes of Wrath and how things had changed since the book was published in 1939. He’s surprisingly optimistic about the changes in American society since the Great Depression: “We have solved so many of [the problems] and the solutions have been the product of ourselves, and the product of our own people working together. We have many more to solve, but at least we’re on the way there.”

12. Flannery O’Connor

Here’s Flannery O’Connor reading her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find" at Vanderbilt University in 1959. Here are Parts 2 and 3.

13. Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Like a ghost from the past, Tennyson reads his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Like the Whitman recording, it too was taken from a wax cylinder Thomas Edison made in 1890. Tennyson can be hard to understand at times, especially at the poem’s most famous lines: “Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die.” Odd, too, is the mysterious knocking at the end.

14. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

In a pleasant Scottish brogue, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle talks about how he started writing Sherlock Holmes (“I began to think of turning scientific methods, as it were, onto the work of detection”) and the character’s popularity (“I’ve even had ladies writing to say that they’d be very glad to act as [Holmes’] housekeeper”). Then the interview veers toward “psychic matters” as Doyle explains that he has given up mystery writing to devote himself to the study of spiritualism.

15. JM Barrie

The author of Peter Pan was famously short, as is evident in this 1931 footage, where Barrie unveils a statue of Henry James.

16. Arthur Miller

In a 1987 interview, Arthur Miller talks about his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. In addition to thoughtful insight into Monroe’s psychology, he discusses the reception of After The Fall, a play he wrote about his relationship with Monroe.

17. Vladimir Nabokov

Here’s Nabokov talking about his novel Lolita on a 1950s CBC program "Close Up.” The interview is at the height of the controversy surrounding the book, which was banned due to its theme of child molestation. When asked his intentions in writing it, Nabokov replies: “I don’t wish to touch hearts and I don’t even want to affect minds very much. What I want to do is produce that little sob in the spine of the artist reader.”

18. William Faulkner

In this short excerpt from a Q&A as University of Virginia’s first Writer-in-Residence, Faulkner talks about The Sound and the Fury, and why it was his favorite novel. Listen to the full recording here.

19. Jack Kerouac

And finally, here’s Jack Kerouac on the The Steve Allen Plymouth Show in 1959. After awkwardly answering questions while Steve Allen tinkles on the piano, he gives a terrific reading from On The Road and Visions of Cody while jazz plays in the background. You gotta love that ending: “I think of Dean Mor-i-ar-ty.”

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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.