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26 Vintage Photos of Cowboys & Cowgirls

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Ever since the idea of the cowboy entered the public consciousness, people have been fascinated with them. Whether it’s the idea of getting to work with animals, the rough & tough image, or the concept of freedom they represent, cowboys have become an integral part of American history and culture. Here are some vintage photos of cowboys that show what day-to-day life really was like for these horse-wrangling icons.

Once again, all photos courtesy of the Library of Congress.

At The Ranch

While a handful of cowboys would work exclusively on cattle drives, most were employed to work at ranches, where their duties were pretty much what you would expect of a ranch hand. A lot of their time was spent protecting and herding the animals they were in charge of, like this cowpoke did back in 1900.

They would feed the animals, like this young man was doing when he was photographed by Russell Lee in 1940.

And, while popular culture tends to pair the cowboy with only cows and horses, they would take care of all manner of farm animal. While in this photo, shot by Russell Lee in 1940, it looks like the rancher is about to end the poor creature’s life, he’s actually just trimming up the sheep’s wool.

On the Range

Pop culture depictions tend to focus on cowboys' lives out on the range, and with good reason – cowboys spent plenty of time sleeping under the stars and braving the wilds. For some ranchers, this merely meant keeping an eye on your herd while they went out to graze, like this wrangler was doing when photographed by Erwin Evans in 1907.

Of course, when it came to the famed cattle drive, things quickly became a lot more active. Still, most of the work involved merely herding the cows forward as seen in this image by John Vachon taken in 1938.

The more difficult job went to those assigned to wrangle up the stranglers and escapists, like this man, photographed by Erwin Evans in 1907, was attempting to do.

On occasion, cowboys would go out looking to capture wild animals that might endanger their herds or that might otherwise affect the day-to-day life at the ranch. Photographer John C. H. Grabill didn’t include any notes on what happened to the buffalo captured by these three cowboys in 1889, but hopefully they either let him go or at least used him as a food source. Unfortunately, given that American bison were hunted and killed to near extinction during this period, these outcomes seem unlikely.

Chuck wagons were the traveling cowboys' best friends as they provided their daily meals. Here are a group of wranglers enjoying their dinner some time between 1880 and 1910.

While life on the range was hard work, there was still time for recreation here and there. Here a gang of cowboys enjoy a game of mumble peg, as photographed by Erwin Evans in 1907.

If you’ve ever wondered how cowboys would ensure their horses wouldn’t run away overnight, well, this 1906 picture reveals their secret – a corral made out of rope. Sure some of the men might have a favorite horse that would never wander away from them, but most of the horses would certainly wander off if not tied up or corralled in one place.

Training Horses

Being that a cowboy’s main mode of transportation was a horse, it only makes sense that they would spend a lot of time training these wild animals to serve as a form of transportation. Generally, the training process would start by roping a horse and teaching it to walk while roped, so it would get used to being under someone’s control. Here a cowboy is trying to start the process on a foal as photographed by Marion Post Walcott in 1941.

The next step would usually involve putting all the riding equipment onto the horse and getting it used to being led around by its halter while equipped with a saddle, stirrups and the rest of the gear. As you can see in this image taken by Erwin Evans in 1907, most of the horses would fight the process every step of the way.

The final and most dangerous step of the process would be “bronco busting,” where the rider would actually have to get on the horse and teach it to mellow out and respond to the rider’s commands. Here’s one cowboy trying to break his horse back in 1904.

Training a horse was (and still is) a lot of work, but in the end, having a well-trained, reliable horse was always worth the effort, as this cowboy would certainly attest to.

Managing Cows

As the name implies, cowboys often dealt with cows. Here you can see how difficult it could be for even two experienced men to get a stubborn calf to cooperate, as evidenced by Russell Lee in 1939.

While branding is a bit controversial in today’s society, in the early 1900s it was the only way to prove that a cow was yours. With all the cattle rustlers in the West, it was something that every ranch had to do on a regular basis.

Of course, it wasn’t all about getting the cows to bend to your will; sometimes the cowboys were downright kind to their cattle. Russell Lee managed to capture this tender moment between a cowboy and his steer back in 1940.

Performing in Rodeos

As you can see, many cowboys were used to roping and tying calves and riding bucking broncos on a daily basis. That’s why it only made sense for cowpokes to get together and test each other’s skills, hence the birth of the rodeo (interestingly, the sport began in Spain and Mexico before it came to the U.S.). These three cowboys were trying to get “Unruly Butcher Bob” ready for his performance back in 1910. Here’s a tip for any aspiring rodeo performer: if three grown men still can’t control a horse, you probably don’t want to start your career with that particular creature.

Of course, a great rider can manage to stay on just about any bronco as Mr. O’Donnell proved in his amazing ride on Whirlwind in 1911.

If you’ve ever been to a rodeo, then you certainly recognize these pens used to help the rider get on the angry creature before the round begins. This particular starting gate was photographed in New Mexico by Russell Lee in 1940.

Bull riding is the one event that grew exclusively from the sport’s Latin roots as the practice was originally an offshoot from bull fighting and was not part of a cowboy’s daily activities. Even so, the American rodeo quickly adopted the competition, and these days it’s one of the most popular rodeo events around. This rider was performing in the Bean Day Rodeo in New Mexico when he was photographed by Russell Lee in 1939.

By the early 1900s, the sport was pretty darn big and performances took place in massive arenas. There were also many people competing. Here are all the participants in a roping contest held in Oklahoma City in 1909. To see the image all in one piece, visit its page at the LOC.

Cowgirls

For women, work on the range was rarely an option, but there were still a decent number of women who worked on ranches out West, performing many of the same duties as their male counterparts. Here’s one Montana woman dressed for the job in 1909.

Interestingly, while there weren’t many women on the range, there were a number of female rodeo stars in the sport’s early days. Here is Lucille Mullhall, the first woman to use the term “cowgirl” to describe herself, in 1909.

And here’s champion female rider “Kitty Canutt” riding Winnemucca in 1919.

The Pendleton Round-Up held some of the largest all-female competitions in the country, until one rider died in 1929. After that time, female rodeo contests were largely discontinued for the next fifty years. Here are all the female competitors during the golden age of women’s rodeo at the Pendleton Round-Up in 1911. To see this picture all in one piece, visit the LOC.

I must admit, writing this article was particularly exciting for me, as I come from a long line of cowboys. In fact, my grandfather, Harry Harness, moved from a ranch in Montana to California where he started an Arabian horse ranch with my grandmother. I’m sure many of you have similar stories or have even participated in activities like these yourselves. If so, share your stories in the comments!

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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