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Christina Ung

The Woman at the Wheel

Original image
Christina Ung

In 1909, driving was a man’s work. As one doctor wrote, “A speed of 15 or 20 miles an hour in a motor causes [women] acute mental suffering, nervous excitement, and circulatory disturbances.” Some worried that riding in open-air cars would lead to “automobile face,” an unfortunate—and hypothetical—condition in which the wind would blow women’s mouths into permanent gapes.

These notions were terrible for women. They were also terrible for the auto business. Sexism was cutting the potential market in half! The car company Maxwell realized that getting women in the driver’s seat would boost sales, so it put PR man Carl Kelsey on the case. But Kelsey knew he needed more than a few newspaper ads to change public opinion; he needed a spectacle. He began looking for a woman he could challenge to drive from coast to coast.

Kelsey found the perfect adventurer in 22-year-old Alice Huyler Ramsey. The Vassar grad had been out for a horseback ride the previous year when a car’s horn had spooked her mount. After the incident, her husband reasoned that cars were probably safer than horses and persuaded his wife to buck social norms by driving a Maxwell. She even competed in motoring competitions, where she jockeyed around hay bales and other obstacles.

When Kelsey pitched his idea to Ramsey over dinner, she jumped at the opportunity. Ramsey would later say, “I did it because it was a challenge and because I knew it would be fun.” She roped two sisters-in-law and a friend into joining her—strictly for company, of course; only Ramsey knew how to drive. Maxwell would provide them with a set of wheels, any supplies they needed, and a PR man to travel ahead of them to drum up coverage. On June 9, 1909, the quartet set out from a Maxwell showroom in Manhattan.

The trip may have been a publicity stunt, but Ramsey and her crew were self-sufficient. They changed 11 tires over the course of their journey and did their own mechanical repairs to the Maxwell. And there was plenty of tinkering to be done. Although it was brand-new, their green 1909 Maxwell Model DA was hardly an ideal vehicle for a long drive. Its four-cylinder engine kicked out just 30 horsepower. The car was also open-air, and, although it could be covered with a canvas top, it lacked a windshield. Making matters worse, the Maxwell’s tires had no tread, rendering the drive on sandy and muddy paths tricky. To traverse the makeshift roads, Ramsey and her pals packed a large canvas tarp that they unrolled on particularly slippery stretches to help the car putter along. When things got really rough, the group paid horsemen to tow them from the mud.

Tougher still, Ramsey didn’t have the benefit of a network of interstate highways or even an atlas outlining the full route! She and her navigators relied on a series of local maps, which meant a lot of getting lost and backtracking. All told, Ramsey drove 3,800 miles, of which just 152 were paved.

The trip took 59 days, and when the Maxwell finally pulled into San Francisco, the Chronicle trumpeted: PRETTY WOMEN MOTORISTS ARRIVE AFTER TRIP ACROSS THE CONTINENT. The headline wasn’t exactly a feminist masterpiece, but Ramsey and her pals had proved that women could drive as well as any man. Or, as Ramsey told an interviewer, “Good driving has nothing to do with sex. It’s all above the collar.”

Take the trip!

1. First night: Toast here! The world’s longest bar (just under 406 feet) is conveniently located at the Beer Barrel Saloon on the Lake Erie island of Put-in-Bay. 324 DELAWARE AVE., PUT-IN-BAY, OH; BEERBARRELPIB.COM

2. Pay your respects to the only member of Lewis & Clark’s team who didn’t make it, at the Sergeant Floyd Monument, which sports a historically correct 15-stripe, 15-star American flag. U.S. HIGHWAY 75, SIOUX CITY, IA

3. Haven’t seen enough cars by the time you reach Reno? Take in 200 of them at the National Automobile Museum. And for heaven’s sake, don’t miss the Alice Ramsey exhibit! 10 LAKE ST., RENO, NV; AUTOMUSEUM.ORG

4. The Empire Hotel, made famous in Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s homage to bizarre behavior, no longer exists. In its place: the whimsical (and affordable) Hotel Vertigo. 940 SUTTER ST., SAN FRANCISCO; HOTELVERTIGOSF.COM

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. You can get a free issue here or check out our iPad edition.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock

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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