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The Quick 10: 10 Authors and their Typewriters

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I bought a vintage typewriter this weekend for $25. I don't think it's a particularly valuable model or anything, but it looks cool and makes a really satisfying typing noise. And there's no "1" key, because at that point in time, people were expected to use the lowercase "l" in place of the actual number one. If I can find ribbon I might actually type on it. Right now it sits on the china hutch that you have to pass to go to our bathroom, so every time I go past it I have to hit the button that makes it go "Ding!" It's driving my husband crazy. Anyway, I've obviously got typewriters on the brain, but I'm not the only one "“ these 10 authors liked theirs too.

hemingway1. Ernest Hemingway preferred to write standing up and kept his Royal Quiet de Luxe typewriter on a bookshelf in his Havana home, which is a museum these days. It was still at the museum until a couple of years ago, when it sold in an auction for $2750.
2. Jack Kerouac famously wrote On the Road using 12-foot rolls of paper. He later taped the rolls together, resulting in one huge scroll measuring 120 feet when unfurled. That's single spaced, no margins or paragraph breaks, by the way. It took him a mere three weeks to tap it out at his fast-and-furious 100-word-per-minute pace.

steinbeck3. John Steinbeck preferred his Hermes Baby, a model Hemingway also had on hand. The Baby was one of the first portable typewriters made in an age where the typing machines were notoriously heavy and cumbersome.
4. David Sedaris, whose dad used to sell IBM typewriters, used one until his boyfriend bought him a MacBook Air, sick of being stopped by security at airports. It's no surprise that he turned the switch into an anecdote: "˜"˜When forced to leave my house for an extended period of time, I take my typewriter with me, and together we endure the wretchedness of passing through the X-ray scanner. The laptops roll merrily down the belt, while I'm instructed to stand aside and open my bag. To me it seems like a normal enough thing to be carrying, but the typewriter's declining popularity arouses suspicion and I wind up eliciting the sort of reaction one might expect when travelling with a cannon. "˜It's a typewriter,' I say. "˜You use it when you write angry letters to airport authorities.'"

twain5. Mark Twain definitely didn't have a portability option, because he used the enormous Sholes & Glidden Treadle Model from 1874. The treadle looks like a hassle, but it was actually supposed to make things easier by providing a quicker carriage return. Twain had his customized, though, by replacing the treadle with a handle. Mr. Clemens is thought to have been the first author to ever submit a typewritten novel to a publisher.
6. John Updike used an Olivetti MP1 portable typewriter until the day he died. It was made the same year he was born "“ 1932- so he liked to tell people that the two of them were "Growing old and erratic together."

orwell7. George Orwell had a portable typewriter called the Remington Home Portable. Agatha Christie used the exact same model.
8. Hunter S. Thompson liked to abuse his red IBM Selectric by taking it out into the snow and shooting at it. It outlived him, though "“ after he shot himself, his body was found sitting at his typewriter with the single word "counselor" typed on the page in front of him.
9. David McCullough, the author behind 1776, uses a secondhand Royal Standard he bought in 1965. "I have written everything I've ever had published on it, and there is nothing wrong with it," he once said.

10. P.J. O'Rourke uses an IBM Selectric as well, saying his short attention span doesn't mix well with writing on a computer. And he's right "“ it's easy to get distracted by your e-mail and Twitter and Facebook and, well, mental_floss. He also says the typewriter is a good thing because it makes authors slow down. Stephen King once said that if he had a computer back in the day, he could have written three Cujos in the time it took to type the one. "Does the world need three times as many Cujos?" O'Rourke responded dryly.

Well, after researching all of that, I have an even more romanticized idea of typewriters than I did before. Jason, from now on, I'll be submitting all of my _floss articles on typewriter paper. I'll send you a telegram so you'll know when to expect them.
Any other typewriter enthusiasts out there? Is there anything I should know about my new treasure? And can you find old typewriter ribbon anywhere other than eBay?

Hemingway, Steinbeck, Twain and Orwell pictures from Poetic Home.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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