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Frederick Starr: Anthropologist Lost from the History Books

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Wikimedia Commons

You probably haven’t heard of Frederick Starr. Like his contemporary Franz Boas, Starr was an anthropologist coming to fame while the discipline of anthropology was still being formed. Throughout his career, Starr studied people and cultures on three different continents, and still found time to make a name for himself as a lecturer at the University of Chicago. But unlike Boas—who is considered the father of American Anthropology—you won’t find Starr’s name in many textbooks. The tale of how Frederick Starr was nearly forgotten is one full of controversy and ideology.

Starr’s Early Life and Career

Frederick Starr was born in 1858 in Auburn, New York, to the Reverend Frederick Starr Jr. and Helen Mills Starr. As a child, Starr was a strong student and an avid collector of fossils and minerals. He explored that interest further at the University of Rochester, where he studied geology; two years later, he transferred to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and graduated in 1882. He received a doctorate in geology from Lafayette College in 1885.

In the late 1800s, anthropology was still a new and growing discipline, so Starr didn't study it formally. It wasn’t until after his schooling, while teaching at Coe College, that Starr discovered his interest in the subject. He conducted both ethnographic and archaeological fieldwork among the local Sauk and Fox Indian tribes and reputedly taught the first anthropology course in Iowa while at Coe. It's not clear who or what specifically spurred Starr’s interest in anthropology, but he pursued it avidly, leaving his studies of geology behind. Following his work at Coe College, Starr held several short-term positions, including working with the ethnological collection at the American Museum of Natural History, before finally accepting a long-term faculty position at the University of Chicago in 1892.

During his time at the University of Chicago, Starr became a very influential public speaker, frequently giving lectures on anthropological subjects that were open to the public through the University’s extension program. After attending an extension course about prehistoric and primitive art, W.R. French, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago at the time, wrote that Starr’s lectures were “both authoritative and agreeable,” and that “Professor Starr has eminently the art of making scientific truth interesting to intelligent but unprofessional academics.”

An Anthropologist is Born

According to Donald McVicker, author of Frederick Starr: Popularizer of Anthropology, Public Intellectual, and Genuine Eccentric, Starr engaged in an incredibly varied anthropological career at the turn of the 20th century. He conducted notable research in Mexico, among many Native American tribes in the United States, with the Ainu people of Japan, and in several regions of Africa.

The World’s Fairs that took place in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries seemed to provide Starr with the perfect opportunities to put his work on display. Much to his dismay, however, Starr was not allowed an influential position at the famous World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. He was excluded by better known anthropologists like Boas and Frederic Ward Putnam, director of Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Starr was commissioned to collect data about and artifacts from the Eastern Cherokee people in North Carolina for Putnam and Boas, but contributed little else to this fair.

At the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904, however, Starr’s work made a much bigger splash. The anthropologist brought nine Ainu people and a translator back with him from Japan to be part of an exhibit at the fair. These Ainu, members of a Japanese indigenous group from Hokkaido in the northern part of the country, were to be displayed as part of a literal representation of the evolutionary stages of humanity towards civilization; along with several other indigenous groups assembled by other anthropologists, they were on display as “barbarous and semi-barbarous peoples.” While this is unquestionably offensive to today's sensibilities, the visitor response to the exhibit at the time was overwhelmingly positive, as most people had never before heard of the Ainu and were intrigued by their appearance and practices. In a 1993 article about the Ainu exhibit, anthropologist James W. Vanstone reports the reactions from writers and visitors to the exhibit:

One enthusiastic writer referred to the Ainu as "mysterious little Japanese primitives" and noted that visitors were impressed by their cleanliness and polite manners, but somewhat disappointed that they were no "man-eaters, dog-eaters or wild men."

In addition to contributing to these World’s Fairs, Starr produced several publications in conjunction with his fieldwork. These publications included many scholarly and other articles, as well as books like The Truth about the Congo, about his studies in that region; Indians of Southern Mexico: An Ethnographic Album; and In Indian Mexico: A Narrative of Travel and Labor, about the performance and findings of his extensive work with Indian tribes in Mexico.

Starr’s Methods and Misconduct in Mexico

His appearance in St. Louis with the Ainu may have been Starr’s most publicly recognized work, but if he is remembered at all today, it's for his fieldwork in Mexico. Starr recalls his purpose there in In Indian Mexico:

The work I planned to do among these indian towns was threefold: 1. The measurement of one hundred men and twenty-five women in each population, fourteen measurements being taken upon each subject; 2. The making of pictures,—portraits, dress, occupations, customs, buildings, and landscapes; 3. The making of plaster busts of five individuals in each tribe.

The primary goals in making such recordings were to observe the differences between various Mexican tribes and to establish the placement of such people, and their race and culture, on the same scale that he had placed the Ainu, from barbarous to civilized. It was assumed at the time that there were physical characteristics, such as cranial shape and size, that could mark such distinctions between races (a theory that has long since been disproved).

In his book, Starr refers to the Mexican people he is studying as “ignorant, timid, and suspicious.” He also makes regular references to them being too drunk to allow their measurements to be taken. All of these characteristics assigned to these Mexican Indians by Starr explained, in his point of view, the difficulty he often had in securing subjects for measurement, and justified the forceful methods he felt compelled to use. Starr took advantage of the fact that prisoners could not refuse his requests to measure them, and regularly photographed and measured imprisoned subjects for his work. What’s more, if there were individuals he wished to measure who did not acquiesce, he would threaten them with arrest and jail time so that they could no longer refuse. The authorities did not object to these methods, instead providing support for Starr by collecting subjects and keeping order. Starr even recounts a specific incident where policemen stopped a bullfight in progress in order to obtain a young man taking part in the fight for Starr’s research.

Starr Fading from View

Over time, Starr’s brutish, unethical methods and offensive ideas became questionable in the eyes of the anthropological community. The theories of his contemporary Boas, however, began to amass a great deal of support from other anthropologists and academics.

Boas, born and educated in Germany, moved to the United States in 1887 and proceeded to make substantial contributions to the methodology of American anthropology. By incorporating the methods of natural science into the discipline of anthropology, Boas emphasized the importance of conducting research before developing theories, as well as approaching studies in the most ethical and unbiased ways possible. What’s more, he developed the modern interpretation of culture, viewing it as learned behavior and a product of a people's history, rather than a hierarchical measurement of civilization that would place the western world on top.

While most anthropologists, inspired by Boas, began to recognize the people they studied as part of the larger, equal human race, Starr continued to regard them as primitive and inferior, demonstrated by his attitude towards his subjects in Mexico. Soon, Starr’s methods of fieldwork were widely considered unethical and his ideas about culture outdated.

Starr’s charisma and ability as a speaker managed to keep him relevant in public education spheres toward the end of his career. In this capacity, Starr overshadowed Boas, who preferred not to address the general themes of anthropology necessary in public lecturing and was nervous about his skill in speaking English, which was not his first language. The academic discipline of anthropology, though, became dominated by Boas’ methods and, over the years, Frederick Starr and his methods were phased out. Today, his work is rarely read, or even mentioned, in discussions or classes on anthropological history.

After 31 years at the University of Chicago, Starr retired from his post in 1923. True to form, he continued to travel the globe and engage in public speaking events until his death; he died unexpectedly of pneumonia while in Japan in 1933.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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