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The Wisconsin Town That Didn't Learn English for Five Generations

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19th-century map courtesy of Deb Gunther

In 1837 an Irishman from New York named John Hustis bought a plot of land 50 miles north of Madison, Wisconsin, and founded the town of Hustisford. For a few years, the town spoke English, the language of the Irish and English families who got there first. Then came the Germans.

Between 1840 and 1880, millions of German-speaking immigrants settled in the United States. Many of them came to Wisconsin. The German families who came to Hustisford set up German-speaking schools, churches, clubs, and shops. Soon nearly every aspect of Hustisford life was conducted in German. Even the Irish were learning it.

So far, the story of Hustisford looks very much like the story people usually tell about their immigrant ancestors: the great-grandparents came from the old country, bringing their language and customs with them. However, the story then usually continues with those immigrants working hard to assimilate, gradually learning English and adapting to their new circumstances. It ends with their children casting off the old language for good and voilà!—the melting into the pot is complete. But that's not the way it happened in Hustisford.

The 1910 Census

Around 2007, when University of Wisconsin linguists Miranda Wilkerson and Joseph Salmons began looking at historical language data in eastern Wisconsin, they found something unexpected. The 1910 Census numbers revealed that not only was German still widely spoken in the region at that time—a half-century after German immigration had tapered off—but many of those German speakers could not speak English.

In 1910, a quarter of the population in Hustisford were still monolingual German speakers. This was not because they had recently arrived; almost 60% of them had immigrated before 1880. A third of them had been born in the U.S. More surprisingly, a number of those had been born in the U.S. to U.S.-born parents. In other words, they were the grandchildren of immigrants, third generation, who had still not learned English.

Even the ones who claimed to speak English could not necessarily speak it all that well. Court records from that time show cases where people who'd claimed English on the Census form could not respond in English to simple questions from a judge.

Despite occasionally running into difficulty at the courthouse, for the most part, the lack of English didn't get in the way of a happy, successful life for the German speakers of Hustisford. Non English-speaking citizens were baptized, confirmed, educated, and married in German. They worked as blacksmiths, tailors, and merchants. They built their homes, farmed their land, and saved up for the benefit of future generations who did, eventually, learn English.

The Decline

A wave of anti-German sentiment during World War I helped speed the decline of the German language in some parts of the U.S., but did not kill it off completely. German was still a big part of daily life in Hustisford and other eastern Wisconsin towns, at least until the 1930s. For example, records show that a church in the nearby town of Lebanon decided to introduce one English language sermon a month "on a trial basis" – in 1929.

It took almost 100 years and nearly five generations for Hustisford to become a purely English-speaking town. Wilkerson and Salmons point to the story of Hustisford and the region around it as a refutation of the commonly made claim that immigrants today just don't learn English like they used to. In fact, according to a recent report by the Migration Policy Institute, today's immigrants are learning English faster than ever. They're certainly learning it faster than they did in Hustisford.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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