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8 Things You Need to Know About Polish Americans

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October is Polish American Heritage Month, and this one is especially important. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Polish immigrants in America. In honor of those first brave Poles—don't ever call us Polacks; that's a mangling of the Polish word Polak, which means a Polish male person, and is considered an ethnic slur—my family and Polish Americans everywhere, here are eight things you should know about us.

1. We got to the party early, and brought a lot of friends.

In 1608, the first Polish immigrants arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, and were quickly recruited by the colony as craftsmen in the colony's glassmaking and woodworking industries. (They also dug the colony's first well.) After a decade in Jamestown, the Poles still did not have the right to vote in the elections of the colonial government, and in 1619, they held the first labor strike in America. By walking off the job, they affected the local industry enough that voting rights were granted to them.

Just before America began to fight to gain its independence, Poland lost its own. In 1772, 1793 and 1795, the Polish"“Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned by Prussia, Russia and Austria. The first of three major waves of Polish immigration occurred after the partition when Polish nobles, political dissidents and other Poles fled their occupied nation.

A second wave took place between 1860 and World War I. Although the reconstitution of Poland was parts of Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, and Poland regained its independence as the Second Polish Republic, a few million Poles had already left for America because industrialization had driven them from their farms.

The third and largest wave lasted from the end of World War I to the end of the Cold War, again mostly made up of political refugees. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and emergence of the Third Polish Republic, a fourth wave of immigrants, who generally come to earn money and eventually return to Poland, began. Today, there are an estimated 10 million Americans of Polish descent.

2. We're mostly found in clusters in the Northeast

Polish immigrants were considered well-suited for manual labor, and were often recruited for work in coal mines and the steel industry. Because of that, the largest Polish American populations can still be found in states that were industrial centers in the 20th century, like Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan (here's a map of Polish American hot spots).

The largest Polish American population can be found in Chicago, which with 185,000 Polish speakers calls itself the largest Polish city outside of Poland. The cities and towns of Pennsylvania's Luzerne and Lackawanna Counties, including Wilkes-Barre (my home sweet home), Scranton, Hazleton, Pittston and Nanticoke, are also home to large Polish populations because of the area's once-large coal deposits.

3. We made some big steps for religion in this country

When the predominantly Roman Catholic Poles came to America en masse in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Catholic Church here had no Polish bishops and very few Polish priests. A group of Polish immigrants in Scranton broke away in 1897 and formed the Polish National Catholic Church. Today, the PNCC has 126 parishes in North America and 60,000 members.

While Poland is largely Roman Catholic, it has had a small Muslim population since the 14th century, when Tatar tribes began settling in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A group of Polish Muslims who emigrated to the U.S. co-founded the first Muslim organization in Brooklyn in 1907 and, in 1926, built a mosque that's still in use today.

4. We've got friends in high places

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Polish Americans you might be familiar with include Kristen Bell, Maria Bello, Scarlett Johansson, John Krasinski, Mike Krzyzewski, Jerry Orbach, John Ratzenberger, Gore Verbinski, the Wachowski brothers, the Warner brothers, Pat Benatar, Dick Dale, Liberace, Richie Sambora, Jack White, Pat Sajak, Martha Stewart, Steve Wozniak, Richard Feynman, Gene Krupa and Mike Ditka.

While they may not be household names, other Polish Americans have done some pretty important things. Stephanie Kwolek developed Kevlar. Albert Abraham Michelson was the first American to receive the Nobel Prize in the sciences for his work on measuring the speed of light. Curtis Sliwa founded the Guardian Angels. Ruth Handler co-founded the Mattel toy company and created the Barbie doll. Leo Gerstenzang invented the Q-tip.

Of course, there are those Polish Americans that we're not so proud of, like Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President William McKinley, and Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

5. George Washington loved us

Among the Polish immigrants to America after the partitions was Casimir PuÅ‚aski, a Polish noble and soldier, who was recruited by Benjamin Franklin to help lead the American army. PuÅ‚aski was made a general and had a large role in training the Continental Army. He later created Pulaski's Legion, one of America's first cavalry regiments, and is regarded as "the father of American cavalry."

In 1929, Congress passed a resolution designating October 11 as General Pułaski Memorial Day in observance of his death at the Siege of Savannah in 1779. Numerous states and cities also recognize separate holidays commemorating Pułaski's birth and/or death.

6. There ain't no Christmas like a Polish Christmas

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[Image courtesy of Przykuta.]

Wigilia, the traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner, begins when the first evening star appears. Twelve meatless courses (one for each of the apostles) are served after a white wafer called the oplatek, is broken and shared among the diners while they exchange good wishes (a separate pink wafer is shared with the animals). For the dinner, there should be an even number of people at the table to ensure good health, with one empty chair reserved anyone who happens to stop by. Tasting all twelve courses ensures good luck in the new year. After supper, Christmas carols are sung in Polish, and the celebration culminates with family and friends going to Pasterka, the Midnight Mass.

7. We didn't invent the polka, but we do love it

While often attributed to the Polish, the polka actually originated in Bohemia. The name comes from the Czech word půlka ("little half," in reference to the half-steps in the polka dance), but the spelling is the same as the Czech polka, which means "Polish woman." I can see where the confusion lies, especially since polkas are in heavy rotation at Polish weddings and other celebrations, along with the Chicken Dance (which is also not our creation).

8. Our food is awesome

Do you like kielbasa? How about pierogis? You're welcome.

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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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May 23, 2017
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