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Not-So-Famous Firsts: The Civil Rights Movement

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In honor of Martin Luther King Day, let's take a look at a few not-so-famous firsts in the American Civil Rights Movement.

Get on the Bus

Eleven years before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus to a white passenger, Irene Morgan did the same on a Greyhound bus bound from Virginia to Maryland. It was a hot and humid July morning in 1944, and Morgan had been visiting her mother in Gloucester, Virginia. She was probably feeling the effects of the oppressive heat more than many other passengers, as she’d suffered a miscarriage just a few weeks earlier and was still not 100 percent recovered. She purchased a $5 Greyhound ticket bound for Baltimore, Maryland, where she lived with her husband and two children and where she also worked at a defense plant that manufactured B-26 Marauders.


Her seat was in the section designated for “Coloreds,” but when a white couple boarded the crowded bus near Saluda, Virginia, the driver ordered Morgan and another woman to vacate their seats. Morgan refused, stating she’d paid for her ticket just like every other passenger.

A local sheriff was summoned, and during the ensuing arrest Morgan kicked him. She was jailed for a day and charged with both resisting arrest and violating Virginia’s segregated seating laws. She pled guilty to the first charge, but protested the second and a young NAACP attorney named Thurgood Marshall took on her case. Morgan vs The Commonwealth of Virginia went all the way to the Supreme Court and won on the grounds that, because that Greyhound bus was crossing state lines, it represented “an unconstitutional burden on the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce and that it threatened free movement across state lines.”

Greyhound Bus Lines eliminated their Jim Crow seating policy after the ruling, and Irene Morgan went on to raise her children and then go to college and earn a master’s degree in Urban Studies at the age of 72.

Rock the Vote

As part of Reconstruction, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Fifteenth Amendment into law in 1870, which guaranteed that no U.S. citizen could be “denied the right to vote based upon race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The amendment was ratified on March 30, 1870, and on March 31 Thomas Mundy Peterson of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, became the first African-American to cast a vote in a U.S. election. Peterson worked as a custodian at the town’s Public School Number One, and on the morning of March 31, 1870, his boss, J.L. Kearny, approached him as he worked and suggested that he take some time off and go to the polls to “exercise a citizen’s privilege.” The issue on the ballot was whether to revise or abandon the town’s charter. Peterson not only cast his vote, he was also later selected to serve on the committee of seven to revise the charter after the election. He later became the city’s first African-American to serve on a jury. In 1989 Perth Amboy’s P.S. 1 was renamed Thomas Mundy Peterson Elementary School.

Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves

Born into a family of educators in Baltimore in 1910, Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray attended New York’s Hunter College after graduating from high school with the intent of getting a teaching degree. She earned her tuition by any means necessary, including menial jobs as well as tutoring students in remedial reading and occasionally successfully getting articles and poems published in local magazines. In 1938 she applied to the then all-white University of North Carolina (which would have made her the school’s first African-American student) but she was denied admission. Despite support from the NAACP and some national publicity, Murray’s application was still rejected.


Nevertheless, her campaign caught the attention of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and the two formed a lifelong friendship. Murray graduated from Howard University Law School in 1944 (first in her class, and the only female) and was awarded the prestigious Julius Rosenwald Fellowship for graduate work, which traditionally is accomplished at Harvard Law School. However, Murray was rejected by Harvard not because of her race, but because of her gender; despite a glowing letter of reference from President Franklin D. Roosevelt (a Harvard alum himself), the university would not budge on its “males only” policy. Murray went on to earn her Master of Law degree from the University of California, and her Harvard rejection helped to form her career focus – fighting “Jane Crow” laws that discriminated against female minorities. In 1965 she became the first African-American to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale University Law School.

Old School, New Thinking

The first institute of higher learning in the U.S. that freely admitted any student regardless of gender or race was Oberlin College in Ohio. Located just outside of Cleveland, the school was founded by two Presbyterian ministers in 1833. In its earliest days the school accepted qualified students regardless of their ability to pay tuition – if they were lacking funds, they could “work off” their fees by providing the manual labor necessary to sustain the college.


In 1841, three women graduated from Oberlin, making them the first females in the United States to receive their AB degrees. In 1857 a 17-year-old African-American woman named Mary Jane Patterson enrolled at Oberlin for a one year “preparatory course.” Her grades were so stellar that she was encouraged to stay for an additional three years to get a degree. In 1862 she became the first black woman in the United States to earn a bachelor’s degree from an established college. Inspired by her success, Mary’s three younger siblings all went on to graduate from Oberlin and earn teaching degrees. As for Mary, she moved to Washington, DC, in 1869 to work as a teacher and two years later became the first African-American principal of the newly-established Preparatory High School for Negroes.

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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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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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