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12 Tragicomic Facts about Samuel Beckett

Born in 1906 in Dublin, Ireland, Samuel Beckett was a playwright, novelist, and poet who wrote about solitude, despair, and futility. Writing in both English and French, Beckett used dark humor to explore the human condition. He died at age 83 in 1989, but in honor of his birthday, here are a dozen facts about his life and work

1. BECKETT BROKE LITERARY RULES BY WRITING BOOKS WITHOUT CHARACTERS AND PLOT.

Considered one of the last Modernists, or sometimes the first Postmodernist, Beckett wrote novels and plays with minimal characters, plot, and scenery. Dubbed “Theatre of the Absurd,” Beckett’s plays—such as his most famous, Waiting For Godot—pessimistically portray the human condition as one that is hopeless and meaningless. The minimal characters and plot reflect this bleak view of life.

2. HE BEFRIENDED JAMES JOYCE, BUT THE TWO WRITERS HAD A FALLING OUT.

In the late 1920s in Paris, Beckett worked as writer James Joyce’s assistant, helping him transcribe and do research for Joyce's novel Finnegans Wake. Beckett greatly admired Joyce, and in 1929, he published an essay defending Joyce’s work. Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, had a crush on Beckett, but he didn’t return her feelings, and the unrequited love reportedly ruined the friendship between Joyce and Beckett.

3. HE LOVED PLAYING AND WATCHING SPORTS …

As a student at a boarding school in Northern Ireland, Beckett was a talented cricket player. When he was 20 years old, he even played a few games for the Dublin University Cricket Club. But his love of sports wasn’t limited to cricket. Beckett was also a lifelong tennis fan who both played and watched tennis matches on TV.

4. … AND HIS WRITING INSPIRED A TENNIS STAR’S TATTOO.

Swiss tennis player Stanislas Wawrinka has beaten favorites Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to win the 2014 Australian Open and 2015 French Open, respectively. To feel inspired on the court, Wawrinka looks down at the inside of his left forearm, which has a tattoo of Beckett’s words from his 1983 novella Worstward Ho: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Wawrinka told The Guardian, “I first saw the quote a long time ago. It always stayed in my mind. It’s how I see life and tennis.”

5. ENTREPRENEURS ALSO LOVE THAT QUOTE.

With the rise of startup culture, business owners have looked for pithy quotes that offer quick advice and motivation. Beckett’s words from Worstward Ho—“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”—have ironically become a popular motivational quote. Although Beckett was focused more on nihilism than self-help, entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson and Tim Ferriss have referred to Beckett’s “Fail better” quote.

6. HE DROVE ANDRÉ THE GIANT TO SCHOOL IN A BIG TRUCK.

In the 1950s, Beckett lived in a hamlet in France and befriended a neighbor, Boris Roussimoff. Because Roussimoff’s 12-year-old son, André, had gigantism, the boy couldn’t get to school—he didn’t fit on the school bus or in the car. Because Beckett had a pickup truck, the writer gave André rides to school. The two chatted about cricket, and André later became a professional wrestler and actor (he's best known for playing Fezzik in The Princess Bride).

7. HE FELT THAT HE HAD NEVER BEEN BORN.

After his dad died in 1933, Beckett experienced night terrors, stomach pain, and depression. He became a patient of Wilfred Bion, a British psychoanalyst, for two years. During this time, he attended a Carl Jung lecture where Jung discussed a girl who had never really been born, an idea with which Beckett identified. He reportedly told close friends that he felt the same way, and much of his work explores themes of alienation, existentialism, and emptiness.

8. HE FELL IN LOVE WITH HIS FUTURE WIFE AFTER BEING STABBED BY A PIMP.

In January 1938, a pimp on a Paris street stabbed Beckett, perforating his lung and seriously injuring him. A tennis acquaintance of Beckett’s, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, heard about the attack and visited Beckett regularly in the hospital during his two week stay. He and Suzanne, who was six years older, fell in love, lived together for many years, and eventually married in 1961. She died in July 1989, and he died a few months after his wife, in December 1989.

9. HE FOUGHT AGAINST THE NAZIS AS PART OF THE FRENCH RESISTANCE.

In World War II, Beckett participated in the French Resistance to fight against the Nazi occupation of France. Translating documents and using his apartment as an information drop, Beckett risked arrest to fight the Nazis. After some of his friends in the French Resistance were arrested, he fled to the south of France in 1942, but he continued to help the movement. The French government later gave Beckett the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) and Médaille de la Résistance (Medal of the Resistance) for his courage.

10. HE MADE A WEIRD MOVIE WITH BUSTER KEATON.

Beckett wrote his only screenplay in the early 1960s and cast a 70-year-old Buster Keaton in his movie, called Film. Released in 1965, Film portrays Keaton in a city, trying to hurry past others on a street, and in a room with various pets and a lone piece of artwork. Highly experimental, Film got mixed reviews, and Beckett described it as an interesting failure.

11. HE WON A NOBEL PRIZE, BUT WASN’T SUPER HAPPY ABOUT IT.

In 1969, Beckett won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his innovative novels and dramas. When he and his wife found out that he had won, she said, “Quelle catastrophe!” (What a catastrophe!) because she knew that her husband didn’t like to be in the spotlight. Because of Beckett’s dislike of fame and publicity, he refused to accept the Nobel Prize in person so he wouldn’t have to give a speech. Beckett’s publisher accepted the award on Beckett’s behalf, and Beckett gave away his prize money, mostly to the library at his alma mater, Dublin’s Trinity College.

12. THERE’S A VERY COOL BRIDGE NAMED AFTER HIM IN DUBLIN.

In December 2009, Beckett’s nephew and niece were present at the Samuel Beckett Bridge opening ceremony in Dublin. Suspended over the River Liffey, the bridge has a series of 31 cables that make it look like a giant harp. Designed by architect Santiago Calatrava (who also designed the nearby James Joyce Bridge), the Samuel Beckett Bridge accommodates car and pedestrian traffic.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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