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The Life and Times of Hetty the Hoarder, the Witch of Wall Street

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Wikimedia Commons

There was an old woman often seen plodding up and down Wall Street at the turn of the 20th century. She walked alone. Her black, faded dress was dirty and ragged at the seams. She carried a case with her with a pitiful lunch tossed inside, usually graham crackers or dry oatmeal. She was such a familiar sight, with her grim face and strange dress, everyone called her “The Witch of Wall Street.”

She was Hetty Green, and she was worth $3.8 billion*.

Building Billions

Hetty was born into a wealthy whaling family in 1834. She was an only child, and her mother was too sickly and fragile to help raise her. Instead, her father and grandfather saw to her care. They trained her to handle money shrewdly from a young age, reading her stock market reports as other parents read bedtime stories.

Hetty was a financier. Her handwriting was sloppy and riddled with misspellings, but she surely knew her numbers. More importantly, she knew how to increase them. She oversaw tremendous real estate deals, bought and sold railroads, and made loans. She was particularly adept at prospering during the downfall of others; buying falling stocks, foreclosing properties, and even holding entire banks, entire cities, at her mercy through enormous loans. Depending who you asked, she was either a brilliant strategist or a ruthless loan shark. Collis P. Huntington, the man who built the Central Pacific Railroad and personal enemy of Hetty, called her “nothing more than a glorified pawnbroker."

Hetty’s audacity was apparent early on. When her aunt, Sylvia Howland, died in 1868 and left $2 million to charity, Hetty was incensed. She challenged the will in court, presenting what she claimed was a previously written will that left everything to Hetty, with a clause that specifically invalidated any subsequent versions of the will. The courts determined that clause and Sylvia’s signature were a complete forgery, and Hetty lost the case. It was one of very few losses that Hetty would allow in her lifetime.

Tough Love

Love was not something that could be tallied in an office, and Hetty struggled with it. She believed (rightly) that she was surrounded by gold diggers, and did not trust the men who showed interest in her. She was 33 before a man who possessed his own modest wealth wanted to marry her. This was Edward Henry Green, with whom she had two children, Ned and Sylvia. Unfortunately Edward wasn’t nearly as good with money as Hetty was. Even though she had made every effort to keep their finances separate, the pre-“women are humans” 19th century banks kept using her money as if it were his. Hetty put a stop to this, and Edward moved out of the family home. His finances rapidly declined. Hetty, however, refused to fit the mold of a complete villain, and nursed her husband during his dying months. She then wore widow’s reeds for years after his death, making her Wall Street appearance all the scarier.  

Joys of Motherhood

Their two children lived a poor existence with their mother. Sylvia was not a pretty girl; she wore cast off clothes and made few friends. She mostly silently shadowed her mother, sleeping next to her on a cot in whatever rented room they happened to be living in. Ned, some would say, suffered even more. When he was a teenager he was struck by a child driving an “express” dog cart, pulled by a St. Bernard. Ned’s leg was already lame for reasons lost to history, but the accident left it in serious need of medical attention. Hetty, ever the dutiful mother, took her son to a free clinic in the city. Unfortunately, Hetty was too recognizable, and the doctors demanded payment as they would from anyone they suspected of faking poverty. 

So Hetty decided the leg would likely knit itself if given time, especially with her helpful home treatment of “oil of squills” and “Carter’s Little Liver Pills.” Ned’s leg worsened, until, after suffering a fall down a flight of stairs while visiting his father, Edward realized the depth of the injury and called a doctor. The leg was amputated, with Ned’s father using his own dwindling money to pay for it, rather than haggle with Hetty.

“A Bunch of Robbers!”

In fairness, Hetty’s medical frugality applied to herself, too. After 20 years of suffering a hernia, she finally allowed Dr. Henry S Pascal to examine her in 1915. When she disrobed down to her “old and none too clean” underwear, Pascal saw that she did indeed have a severe, bulging hernia. Her solution had been to jam a stick against the swelling, held in place by her underwear and the pressure of her own leg. The doctor told her the extremely painful hernia need an immediate operation. When he told her the cost, $150, she scowled and picked her fallen stick off the floor, replacing it in her underwear.

“You’re all alike! A bunch of robbers!” she said, and left the doctor’s office.

Hetty’s peculiarities increased as she aged. She changed residence with a skulking frequency, moving from one small, unheated apartment to another. This was her attempt to hide from both the press and tax collectors. She believed that this, combined with taking confusing and varied routes to work (at an office provided free by her bank, of course) also kept kidnappers and robbers at bay. One source details her great discomfort when sleeping in a strange place. She wore safe deposit keys to various banks on a chain around her waist at all times, and slept with a revolver rigged to her hand with strings when staying in a strange motel. 

“I am called close and mean and stingy.”

She also became fonder of public speaking as she entered old age. These interviews are the world’s only chance to hear the “Witch” defend herself, and to wonder if history has been too hard on the oddity of a powerful woman. “I am not a hard woman," she told one reporter. "But because I do not have a secretary to announce every kind act I perform I am called close and mean and stingy. I am a Quaker, and I am trying to live up to the tenets of that faith. That is why I dress plainly and live quietly. No other kind of life would please me.”

Hetty died at the age of 81, in 1916. Ned tried to make his mother look good. He spoke of her many charities, though not one was ever actually named and none came forward to identify themselves. He spoke of an old decrepit employee his mother had kept on out of compassion, but was quickly contradicted by other office employees who remembered the man in question and Hetty’s dismissal of him when he was no longer useful.

Rebellious Children

Ned and Sylvia took different paths when they received their inheritances. Sylvia, who had married a man of reasonable means late in life, made few changes. But Ned craved adoration and high living. He married his first lover, a prostitute named Mabel whom his mother had hated. Together they sought popularity and acceptance, spending money in a grand fashion to accomplish it. They built mansions, bought a private island, and kept a passel of young ingénues referred to as Ned’s “wards.” Ned even constructed the largest and most awkward yacht then known to man, and then found himself too seasick to ever use it. He indulged in the new sciences of radio, broadcasting from his own radio station at his Round Hill estate, and allowing MIT access to his equipment for study. When Ned died in 1936, he had miraculously managed to maintain a decent fortune, and left the majority to his sister, Sylvia.

And what did Sylvia do, the quiet, unattractive girl who was now one of the richest people on earth? What did she do with the money of a woman who could not abide giving anything away? She performed an act of rebellion, perhaps her only one.

She left the fortune, around $443 million* at the time of her death in 1951, entirely to charity.

*In today’s dollars.

Sources: Charmers and Cranks by Ishbel Ross, and The Day They Shook the Plum Tree by Arthur H. Lewis.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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