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In Washington, D.C., Peggielene Bartels is a Secretary. In Ghana, She's a King.

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by Phoebe Connelly

Peggielene Bartels was a secretary until a 4 a.m. phone call turned her into royalty.

King Peggy celebrates the Otuam village Harvest Festival with town elders. She makes an annual commute from her home in Washington, D.C. Photo via .

Peggielene Bartels may be a king, but staring at her wrecked 1992 Honda, she didn’t feel like one. After a severe storm struck the Washington, D.C. area last summer, Bartels found her 20-year-old car crushed by a tree. “I mourned,” Bartels admits. “My neighbors heard me and came outside to gather around me. That car had driven me through so much.”

What’s a king doing pining for a used car? And why is she living in the United States? And wait, aren’t kings usually men? Clearly, Peggielene Bartels isn’t your average monarch.

A Fateful Phone Call

Nearly five years ago, Bartels was startled out of bed by a 4 a.m. phone call. When the person on the other end informed her that she’d just been named King of Otuam, a village of 7,000 on Ghana’s coast, it felt like a dream.

The call wasn’t as random as it sounds. “King Peggy” hails from a royal line that has ruled the Otuam village for more than 200 years. Her uncle held the post last, and before he passed, he named Bartels his preferred successor. His niece, after all, was well-educated, younger than 60, and blessed with good character—all integral to the post.

But there were hurdles. In Otuam, kings are elected by a council of town elders, and Bartels’s sex proved to be the first barrier. Although “king” is a gender-neutral title in Ghana, there had been only two female kings before her in the country’s entire history. Otuam needed a leader, and the elders questioned a woman’s abilities to tackle the village’s mounting problems. There was also the cultural divide. At the time of her selection, Bartels had resided in the U.S. for nearly 30 years; she hadn’t lived in Ghana since she was a teen, and the elders worried about her distance from the daily ins and outs of village life.

Bartels had concerns of her own. She had a full-time job as a secretary at the Ghanaian embassy—one she knew she’d have to keep for financial purposes (being king of Otuam doesn’t command a salary). More importantly, she knew that ruling a village from across the ocean would be difficult. It took meditation and prayer and even a consult with her boss to convince Bartels to accept her fairy tale destiny.

A few weeks after saying yes, King Peggy traveled to Ghana for her coronation. “Being a village king means you are entrusted with the responsibility of your community,” Bartels says. In Otuam, that translates to a mix of mayor, diplomat, and chief development officer. And while she was up for the task, a survey of the kingdom proved bracing. Tax collection had ranged from inconsistent to nonexistent for years. Village funds had been pilfered by local elders. There was no running water. Otuam didn’t even have a high school. Or a library. Or a doctor. Even her royal house was in disrepair, with crumbling walls and stacks of building materials littering the yard. The king had her work cut out for her.

Before she could roll up her royal sleeves, however, Bartels was treated to the other extreme. Despite the village’s apparent insolvency, tradition dictated that her coronation be an opulent affair. The council draped King Peggy in gold rings and bracelets before adorning her with a gold crown, albeit one that was too big. “I had to have one made that fit my head,” she says, laughing about the experience.

When the festivities ended, Bartels headed back to Washington where she still works as a secretary—setting up coffee for embassy meetings, typing letters, and handling administrative matters for the ambassador. The crown she wears is a gold-plated replica, one she commissioned specifically for travel. “How would you explain it if a suitcase with the royal crown was lost?” she asks. Meanwhile, Bartels keeps tabs on her kingdom by relying on a network of advisers who oversee day-to-day matters. She has delegated responsibilities like tax collection and infrastructure improvement to those she trusts, and she communicates with her subjects every day.

Each September, Bartels makes the commute back to Otuam for the anniversary of her enthronement and to check in on her projects. “I would love someday to move back, but the time is not right. I can do more from the United States—organizing charities and raising money—than I can do from Ghana,” she says. And what she’s done is remarkable.

The Commuter King

Since taking control of Otuam in 2008, Bartels has been a tornado of transatlantic productivity. She has improved the kingdom’s schools and set up a sponsorship program with a church in Maryland that’s committed to paying for the education, through college, of 30 Ghanaian children. She has planned for and constructed three borehole wells to provide fresh running water for the village, with two more on the way. She’s established a bank that supports local agriculture. And she’s even saving money from her secretarial job to renovate her palace.

Bartels feels that being a woman allows her to bring a unique energy and dedication to the traditionally masculine role of king. But her commitment comes from a deeper place; Bartels views her kingdom as the family she couldn’t have. As a younger woman, she dreamed of a house filled with children—at least 10 of them. She and her husband tried fertility treatments but were unable to conceive. The frustrations caused her marriage to dissolve.

Today, King Peggy is focusing her maternal instincts on her village. She looks up to Queen Elizabeth, calling her “a woman who knows what she wants.” And she draws inspiration from Hillary Clinton.

To that end, King Peggy has made great strides in improving the lives of and opportunities for young women. Because schooling in the region stops at ninth grade, students who wish to further their studies must travel to other cities. Furthermore, many young women have their studies cut short by unwanted pregnancies. By allowing women to pursue an education closer to home, Bartels hopes to decrease the teen pregnancy rate and teach them to dream bigger. “We need to teach them to respect themselves. That sex can wait until they have become their own person,” she says. Of her hopes for the throne, she says, “I would like a woman to be the next king. Women are passionate.”

A King's Sacrifices

As rewarding as Bartels’s work in Otuam has been, being king comes with trade-offs. She no longer wears earrings. (“Kings simply don’t,” she explains.) Nor can she eat or drink in public, which is how she met the coauthor of her autobiography. Eleanor Herman spotted Bartels standing alone at an embassy party, and after she tried to bring the king a plate, the two struck up a conversation.

“I can’t indulge in girls’ nonsense with my women friends as I used to,” Bartels says. She admits she misses the fun of her previous life. Since accepting the crown, she’s lost friends—women and men alike who’ve drifted away as Bartels has juggled the responsibilities of her title. And she acknowledges that controlling her temper has been a challenge. “I can no longer get angry. A king does not argue. I must listen and extend respect and then continue on.”

But her life has greater purpose now, and those are sacrifices Bartels is happy to make.

Someday, King Peggy will find herself living in Otuam full time. Until then, she’ll continue working at the embassy and driving herself around D.C. Today, she drives a Volvo, but she still misses her Honda, a reliable, steady companion. “I’d record a commercial for Honda. That was a good car,” she says. Kings—brand-loyal, just like the rest of us.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Get a free issue on your tablet!

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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]