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Getty Images (Angelou) // Amazon (Book cover)

11 Facts About I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

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Getty Images (Angelou) // Amazon (Book cover)

The first of Maya Angelou’s seven autobiographies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, deals with weighty issues like rape, identity, and racism. When it came out in 1969, it was one of the first books to honestly depict the experiences of a black woman growing up in the south.

1. ANGELOU WAS MUTE FOR 5 YEARS AFTER A SEXUAL ASSAULT.

Much of Caged Bird centers on trauma Angelou experienced as a child. When she was 8, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. She testified at his trial, but though he was convicted, he only served one day in jail. Soon after, he was beaten to death, most likely by Angelou’s uncles. “I thought my voice had killed him,” she later said. “So I stopped talking for five years.” Finally, a neighbor named Bertha Flowers insisted that Angelou read poetry aloud, which helped her regain her voice.

2. A DINNER PARTY WITH JAMES BALDWIN LED TO A PUBLISHING DEAL. 

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By age 40, Angelou had had many careers, working as a journalist, poet, civil rights activist, and singer. She was also a member of the Harlem Writers Guild, where she became friends with author James Baldwin. In 1968, Baldwin took her to a dinner party at the cartoonist Jules Feiffer’s house. Angelou charmed guests with stories of her childhood; the next day, Feiffer’s wife called editor Robert Loomis at Random House and said that he should get Angelou to write a memoir. When he brought it up, Angelou said, “Absolutely not.” Loomis replied, "It’s just as well, because to write an autobiography as literature is just about impossible.” Angelou, who liked a challenge, said, “I’ll start tomorrow.”

3. HER WRITING RITUAL INVOLVED A DECK OF CARDS AND A BOTTLE OF SHERRY.

To get her stories out on paper, Angelou created an elaborate writing ritual. She got up at 5 a.m. and checked into a hotel. “I take a hotel room and ask them to take everything off the walls so there’s me, the Bible, Roget’s Thesaurus and some good, dry sherry, and I’m at work by 6:30,” she said. She wrote on yellow legal pads while lying on the bed, sipped sherry, and played Solitaire when she needed a break. "I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning," she told The Paris Review.

4. THE TITLE CAME FROM A PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR POEM.

African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of Angelou’s favorite writers. The title comes from his poem "Sympathy": 

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings.

5. ANGELOU WAS THE FIRST BLACK FEMALE STREETCAR CONDUCTOR IN SAN FRANCISCO.

Caged Bird covers some interesting trivia: At 16, Angelou decided to become a streetcar conductor in San Francisco because she liked the uniforms. When she went to the office to apply, they wouldn’t give her an application because she was black. So Angelou’s mother told her to go every day and sit in the office until they gave her a job. The plan worked. You can see Angelou telling the story to Oprah above.

6. CAGED BIRD CHANGED ASSUMPTIONS THAT BOOKS ABOUT BLACK WOMEN DIDN'T SELL.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was a bestseller for two years. It challenged the publishing world’s stereotype that “black women’s lives were rarely worthy of autobiography,” according to The New York Times. The success of Caged Bird helped pave the way for other black writers such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Ntozake Shange.

7. READING A POEM AT BILL CLINTON'S INAUGURATION INCREASED BOOK SALES 500 PERCENT.

In 1993, Angelou read her poem "On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration. While Caged Bird had always sold well, after the inauguration, sales shot up 500 percent—landing the book back on the bestseller list 24 years after it was published.

8. ANGELOU CO-WROTE THE MOVIE VERSION OF CAGED BIRD.

Starring Diahann Carroll and Constance Good, the TV movie I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings aired on CBS in 1979. Angelou co-wrote the screenplay with Leonora Thuna. You can watch the movie here.

9. CAGED BIRD IS FREQUENTLY BANNED OR CENSORED ...

Despite being widely taught in schools, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is often removed from reading lists for sexual content, language, and drug use. The American Library Association (ALA) listed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as the third book on The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000. Angelou has been called the most banned author in the U.S.

10. ... AND WAS THE CATALYST FOR BANNED BOOKS WEEK.

According to a post on the ALA's Intellectual Freedom Blog, a display featuring Caged Bird in a "miniature prison cell at the American Booksellers Association 1982 annual convention catalyzed the advent of Banned Books Week." During Banned Books Week—which will be held this year from September 25 to October 1—a number of organizations, including ALA, American Booksellers for Free Expression, and the Association of American Publishers, celebrate the freedom to read.

In 2009, Angelou told The Press-Enterprise that "I'm always sorry that people ban my books ... [M]any times my books are banned by people who never read two sentences. I feel sorry for the young person who never gets to read. Open the library. Let him or her go in. And the adult, the teacher or the parent, should be strong enough to be asked, 'What does this mean?' And brave enough to say, 'Well, I don't know if you can get all of this right now, but I can tell you this. And then later on you'll come to me again, or when I think you are ready, I'll raise it myself.'"

11. ANGELOU'S LAST PROJECT WAS A HIP-HOP ALBUM CALLED CAGED BIRD SONGS.

Music producers Shawn Rivera and RoccStarr worked with Angelou on Caged Bird Songs, an album that blends her poetry and lyrics with hip-hop beats. The title was, of course, taken from I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. It was one of the last projects Angelou worked on before her death in 2014.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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