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Four Years Before Women Had the Right to Vote, Jeannette Rankin Was Elected to Congress

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In 1916, four years before the Constitution recognized her right to vote, Jeannette Rankin was elected to Congress. While women had not achieved suffrage across the U.S. yet, there were no laws barring them from holding office in the Capitol. So Rankin, with her belief that “men and women are like right and left hands; it doesn’t make sense not to use both,” set out to fight for change for women from within the government.

Rankin was sworn in as a representative from Montana in April 1917.

She had helped secure women the right to vote in her home state three years earlier and had intended to bring the fight to the rest of the nation early in her term. The 65th Congress would not have a normal session that year, though, and not only would Rankin’s plans be derailed, but another of her convictions – her anti-war sentiment – would be tested and become the focal point of her term.

Just Say No

World War I was raging in Europe, and just before Congress convened that spring, Germany had declared unrestricted submarine warfare on all Atlantic shipping. Woodrow Wilson had requested Congress declare war against Germany, but Americans and their representatives were still divided on whether the U.S. should enter the conflict. The government was wary of foreign entanglements, but with the news of submarine warfare on American interests, many moods on Capitol Hill shifted quickly.

Rankin’s had not. She’d campaigned on a pacifist platform and was not about to change her mind on the matter. Just a month into her term, the House voted on a resolution to enter the war. When the roll call first came on the vote, Rankin remained silent. Representative Joe Cannon of Illinois approached her on the floor afterward and advised her, “Little woman, you cannot afford not to vote. You represent the womanhood of the country in the American Congress.”

On the second roll call, she voted “no” and entered a comment with her vote, stating: “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.” Forty-nine others voted with her, but the war was on, and Rankin took criticism from war hawks nationwide for the duration of the conflict. Even suffrage groups dropped their support of her, though they would later come out against the war.

The publicity and the unpopularity of her beliefs did not seem to faze Rankin. She got right to securing suffrage for women, opening the congressional debate on the Susan B. Anthony Amendment later that year. Just three years later, the 19th Amendment was ratified and gave women nationwide the right to vote. Rankin, ironically, did not even get to vote on the amendment; she was no longer in Congress at the time. By the end, the public had overwhelmingly come to support the war, and when Rankin’s term was over the year before, her pacifism cost her both reelection to the House and a Senate campaign. The amendment she’d worked so hard on was voted on—and passed—by an all-male Congress.

Out of Office

Rankin worked in the private sector for a few years and returned to Congress in 1939. This time, she was joined by five other women in the House and two in the Senate. Two years later, on a day that would live in infamy, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The morning after, President Franklin Roosevelt spoke before a Joint Session of Congress and called for a formal declaration of war on Japan. The Senate obliged in less than an hour and the House leaders felt pressure to follow suit. During the vote, Rankin commented, “as a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.”  The final vote was 388-1, with Rankin as the sole dissenter.

Rankin’s public image suffered and she was denounced by both the press and other politicians. She knew her pacifism would, as it had decades before, cost her re-election. When her term was up, she didn't even run.

Even after her political career ended, Ranking continued to further the cause of pacifism. In the late 1960s, she protested the Vietnam War at marches in Washington. She died in the spring of 1973,  just two years before Saigon fell and the US pulled out of Vietnam.

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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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