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8 Historical Crossdressers: Women in a Man's World

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You may be familiar with the stories of Joan of Arc and Hua Mulan, but they are far from the only women who crossdressed in order to fill roles historically reserved for men.

1. Ann Bonny and 2. Mary Read

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Ann Bonny and Mary Read were 18th century pirates of the Caribbean. Irish-born Ann married a brigand named James Bonny as a teenager and moved from her home in South Carolina to the Caribbean, where she eloped with another pirate, Calico Jack Rackham. She dressed as a man to join his crew. Read was born in London and was passed off as a boy by her mother in order to collect child support from her dead half-brother's grandparents. After a stint with the British military, she married a sailor and began living as a woman. Her husband died young, and the widow Read once again disguised herself as a man and joined the military. Upon leaving the service, she drifted into a pirate's life. She met Ann Bonny while serving on Rackham's ship, and they became close friends, guarding each other's true identity. The entire pirate crew was captured in 1720, but Bonny and Read both won a stay of execution due to pregnancy. Read died in prison, possibly from childbirth complications. Bonny disappeared from court records. It is believed that her parents may have bought her freedom, but there are no official documents on her fate.

3. Hannah Snell

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Englishwoman Hannah Snell served in the Royal Marines for four years in the 18th century. She assumed the identity of her brother-in-law James Gray after her child died and her husband deserted her. Her unit was sent to capture a French colony in India in 1748, and she was wounded several times without her sex ever being discovered. She revealed her secret to her shipmates in 1750 and was granted an honorable discharge and eventually a pension! Snell made the most of her experience. She sold her story to a publisher, appeared on stage in uniform to tell her story, and opened a pub called The Female Warrior.

More recent women posing as men, after the jump.

4. Frances Clayton

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There are quite a few stories of women serving in the Civil War disguised as men. Estimates range from 150 to 400 such soldiers! Many distinguished themselves, and were even honored for their service after the war. One such hero was Frances L. Clayton, who wore men's clothing to enlist in the Union Army with her husband. She was wounded three times in battle, and was even taken prisoner by the Confederacy. After her husband was killed, she confided her sex to her commanding officer and was granted an honorable discharge.

5. Charley Parkhurst

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Charley Parkhurst was known as one of the greatest stagecoach drivers of the Old West. Charley was short but strong, and even after retiring from driving, could outwork men half her age as a lumberjack. But after Charley died, those who had known "him" for years were shocked to discover Charley was a woman! Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst was born in New Hampshire in 1812. Dressed as a boy, Charley worked in stables and learned the craft of a driver. She built a reputation as a skilled driver, then fled to Georgia, possibly over the threat of exposure. She moved west to California in 1851, where she again built a reputation as a skilled and talented driver. At least once her secret was discovered, but those who knew kept it confidential to preserve her dignity. After her death in 1879, doctors not only discovered Charley's sex, but announced that she had at sometime in her life given birth! (image credit: Val Hoover)

6. Dorothy Lawrence

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Dorothy Lawrence wanted to be a front line journalist during the first World War. Instead of enlisting under an assumed identity, she disguised herself as a British soldier and traveled to the front lines. She became a sapper with a mine-laying company! After ten days of laying mines, she became so nervous about her deception that she confessed to her commanding officer and was promptly arrested as a spy. Lawrence was forced to sign an affidavit agreeing not to write of her experiences, which defeated the entire purpose of her war effort. She actually did write of her experiences, but her story was not published in full until many years later. In 1925, Lawrence was committed to an insane asylum, where she lived until her death in 1964.

7. Billy Tipton

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Billy Tipton was a jazz musician who played piano and saxophone. Born in 1914 as Dorothy Lucille Tipton, she was denied a spot in her high school band because she was a girl. Billy was already a professional musician when she began dressing as a man to better blend in with the other musicians, and by 1940 presented herself as a man both publicly and privately. While playing with various bands, she had long-term relationships with several women who never knew her true sex. Although Billy never legally married, she adopted three sons with stripper Kitty Oakes. Neither Oakes nor their sons knew Tipton's sex until her death in 1989, at age 74.

8. Norah Vincent

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Journalist Norah Vincent went undercover for 18 months as Ned Vincent to discover what the world looked like through a man's eyes. The result was the book Self-Made Man, and some insights she didn't expect. You can read an excerpt from the book here.

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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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