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Emily Dickinson: Scandalous Spinster?

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In 1882, a young bride new to Amherst, Massachusetts asked her neighbor about the mysterious sisters who lived next door. "You will not allow your husband to go there, I hope," said the neighbor. "I went in there one day, and in the drawing room I found Emily reclining in the arms of a man. What can you say to that?" The spinster neighbors, the gossip continued, "[had not], either of them, any idea of morality." 

Intriguing stuff for Victorian New England—and even more intriguing considering that the woman getting it on was Emily Dickinson, a poet often painted as virginal and antisocial. But the story of Emily's love life is more complicated than a forbidden moment on a divan. It involves a family feud, flirtatious letters, and probably a bit of making out.

Scholars have long puzzled over the romantic dichotomy presented by Emily's seemingly reclusive existence and her passionate poetry. True, Emily became more mysterious and secluded as she got older, but she also led a social, if sheltered, life. That extended to romantic relationships, too: Recent scholarship seems to point to a thwarted engagement with George Gould, who became a lifelong friend. And historians have asked themselves whether Emily's close female friendships were platonic or sexual. In fact, one of Emily's rumored hook-ups may have been her sister-in-law Sue—the very woman who warned her neighbor about Emily's wayward behavior. 

But the web of Emily's wild nights doesn't end there. Though she became more and more socially withdrawn as an adult (for example, she refused to go downstairs for her father's funeral, preferring to listen through the door), Emily seems to have fallen in love again in her mid-forties. This time, her lover was Otis Lord, a prominent judge and a close friend of her father's. During her father's life, she could never have openly pursued Lord. Freed by her father's death, the two seem to have deepened their relationship. Soon after Lord's wife died, Emily was writing him letters like this:

Dont you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer—dont you know that "No" is the wildest word we consign to Language?

And this

While others go to Church, I go to mine, for are you not my Church, and have we not a Hymn that no one knows but us? 

But despite Lord's long visits, despite Emily's apparent desire to marry him, even despite Lord's passionate overtures and the "heavenly hours" they spent together in the parlor, a marriage never came to pass. Perhaps Lord's niece and heir discouraged her uncle from making it official. (The niece, Abbie Farley, was even more spiteful than Sue when it came to describing Emily Dickinson—she preferred phrases like "little hussy," "loose morals," and "crazy about men.") Perhaps Emily refused to cross the line due to epilepsy or another illness. Or did Sue, hurt by Emily's neglect, spread more rumors about her sister-in-law's morality to prevent the match? 

If she did, it came back to bite her: The young bride whom she had warned away became fascinated with the Dickinson family in the end—so fascinated that she became Emily's literary champion after her death ... and seduced Sue's husband as part the bargain. Now, over a century later, it seems easier to paint the "virgin recluse" woman-in-white brush. Perhaps we'd do better to chuck out our misperception of Emily as shy spinster and envision her as a self-assured lover instead—unashamedly Rowing in Eden—/Ah! the sea!/Might I but moor—/Tonight in thee! 

Sources: Thinking Musically, Writing Expectantly: New Biographical Information about Emily Dickinson; Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds; "Emily Dickinson's Love Life," via The Emily Dickinson Museum); A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade; Emily Dickinson; Emily Dickinson Electronic Archives

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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]