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Meet 5 Pioneering Women

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March is Women's History Month, because women make history, even when they don't make the history books. It's not always easy to find the fascinating females hidden among the archives of those who settled the United States. Whether they are builders, barrier breakers, victims, or criminals, here are five interesting women whose stories were left out of most textbooks.

1. Deborah Moody

Lady Deborah Moody was an early pioneer in the "new" land of America. Born in the 1580s in England, she was already a widow with two children by the time she sailed to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1639. There, she ran afoul of religious authorities. The well-read and educated Moody argued against baptizing infants, as they cannot make a freewill statement of faith. This belief landed her in court in 1642! The conflict with the Puritans caused Moody to move to New Amsterdam, taking a group of other Anabaptists with her. Moody founded a new community in 1643 called Gravesend, where she was the leading citizen, conducting town meetings and conferring with the Director-General of New Netherland, Peter Stuyvesant. Gravesend was one of the earliest planned communities in America, with streets laid out geometrically before any homes were built. The Gravesend community is now part of Brooklyn, New York, and the area settled by Moody and her followers includes Coney Island, which the community purchased from Native Americans in 1654.

2. Cynthia Ann Parker

Cynthia Ann Parker was born in 1825 in Illinois. Her family traveled by wagon train to settle Fort Parker in Texas. In 1836, soon after the community was established, Comanches raided the settlement and kidnapped five settlers, including ten-year-old Cynthia. Four of the settlers were eventually returned to Fort Parker, but Cynthia Ann Parker stayed with the tribe for 25 years. She had grown to love her Native American family and refused offers of ransom to return to her parents. Over the years, she had some contact with family members, but remained with her adopted tribe and husband, chief Peta Nocoma. They had three children. In 1860, a raid by the Texas Rangers recovered Parker and her infant daughter. Peta was presumed dead, and her two sons escaped. Parker tried many times to return to the Comanches, but was found and sent back to the Parker family each time. Word came that her son Pecos had died, and then her infant daughter Topsannah also died. Broken-hearted, Parker herself died in 1870 at the age of 43. But her legacy continued.

Parker's surviving son Quannah Parker became chief of the Quahadi Comanches and took control of the Texas plains for years, fighting back the U.S. Cavalry until 1874. Exiled to Oklahoma, he was revered as a tribal leader until his death in 1911.

3. Charlotte/Charlene Parkhurst

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 she died, those who had known Charley for years were shocked to discover something they never knew -Charley was a woman! Charlotte (or possibly Charlene) 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 some time in her life given birth. Many parts of her story remain a mystery to this day.

4. Stagecoach Mary Fields

Mary Fields was born into slavery in Tennessee in 1832. Little is known of her early life, but she was close to her master's daughter Dolly, whom she grew up with. Dolly became a nun and settled in a convent in Toledo, Ohio. Fields followed her, and worked for the convent. Then Dolly, now known as Sister Amadeus, moved to Montana to teach Native American children. Fields eventually followed, and was hired to perform heavy labor at the Montana mission. Mary Fields was six feet tall, smoked cigars, drank with men, and didn't turn away from a fight. When another laborer complained that the "uppity colored woman" made more money than he did, Fields went to kill him. The ensuing gunfight left the man slightly injured, and Fields was fired. After opening a restaurant that failed, she got a job delivering mail for the U.S. Postal Service in 1895 -she was only the second woman and the first black woman to ever deliver the nation's mail. Already in her sixties, Fields built a reputation for getting the mail through no matter what the obstacles or the weather, and gained the nickname Stagecoach Mary. Fields retired at the age of seventy and opened a laundry service. But she was still tough: a customer who gave her a bad time about his laundry found himself knocked flat on the ground by a 72-year old woman!

5. Pearl Hart

Pearl Taylor Hart was born in Ontario around 1871. She had a conventional upbringing, but fell for Frederick Hart, with whom she eloped as a teenager. Hart was an abusive drunk and a poor provider, and Pearl was disillusioned. Her husband took a job as a carnival barker with the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and Hart became inspired by sharpshooter Annie Oakley and activist Julia Ward Howe. Hart left her husband and traveled to Colorado. She and her husband reunited off and on, long enough to have three children, but Hart eventually left him for good and went to Arizona, where she hooked up with an outlaw named Joe Boot and began a life of crime. In 1899, they robbed a stagecoach of around $450 and fled. They were soon apprehended. Hart, who was dressed as a man for the caper, became famous as the "lady bandit," a role she was happy to play up for the press. Although she admitted guilt, she was acquitted out of sympathy. The angry judge then held her for firearms possession, for which she received a five-year sentence. Boot got 30 years for the robbery, although he escaped and was never seen again. In prison, Hart was a celebrity and found herself paroled after 18 months. For some time, she courted fame on stage and in a Wild West Show, but eventually disappeared. It is not known for certain how she spent the rest of her life.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]