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The Strange Tale of Texas’ All-Female Supreme Court

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The lawyer approached the bench to be certified. A member of the state bar? Check. A practicing attorney for more than seven years? Check. Never participated in a duel? Check. Hortense Sparks Ward climbed the podium, sat in the center chair, and took her place as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas.

The year was 1925, and it would be 66 years before another group of women managed to eke out a majority in any state court. So how did three women take over the highest court in Texas a mere four and a half years after women won the right to vote? The story of Texas’ “Petticoat Court” is one of old boys’ clubs political vendettas, and a group of women bold enough to serve a court that actively undermined their interests at every turn.

In 1924, Texas’ outgoing governor, Pat Neff, was a sitting duck. He had been elected twice, and though the state didn’t expressly forbid a governor from sitting for three terms, it had never been done before. But Neff was less than thrilled about his elected successor—Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, the wife of a former governor who had been barred from future office after being impeached for a retaliatory veto. Ma Ferguson wasn’t just a shrewd wheeler and dealer—she was the first woman winner of a gubernatorial election in the United States. And that didn’t sit well with Neff.

In March 1924, Neff had been informed of a conflict of interest at the state supreme court. It involved a land dispute case that had originally been heard in El Paso. The case involved the Woodmen of the World (WOW), a fraternal organization that did double duty as the insurance carrier and old boys’ network of nearly every male lawyer in the state of Texas. When attorney after attorney recused himself from the case, the state turned to Neff and told him he must appoint a special court instead. Neff hemmed and hawed—but ten months later, he landed on a solution. The WOW only admitted men, so why not assemble a special state supreme court with only women? 

The scheme wouldn’t just solve the conflict of interest—it would give Neff the opportunity to one-up Ma Ferguson before she had even taken office. It was hard to find qualified women to fill the three seats of the special court, but after a few misses, Hortense Sparks Ward, Hattie Lee Henenberg, and Ruth Virginia Brazzil were certified as the state supreme court in the case of Johnson v. Darr

Hortense Ward was used to controversy—she had fought hard to be admitted to the state bar and was the state’s first female lawyer. But she was also experienced, and even practiced before the United States Supreme Court in 1915, though she tended to minimize her court appearances for fear of the reaction of all-male juries. When she took her seat as temporary chief justice, she was already well known for her support of women’s rights, including lobbying for and winning a law that protected the property rights of married women.

To understand how revolutionary the appointment of three women to a state supreme court was at the time, it helps to realize that women weren’t even allowed to serve on juries (and wouldn’t for another 30 years). And though the Texas Bar grumbled in private, they knew there was no other alternative to the court’s conflict of interest problem.

Four months after their appointment, the “Petticoat Court” ruled in favor of WOW and the special court was dissolved. It would be 57 years before another woman, Ruby Kless Sondock, served on the Supreme Court of Texas—and today, only two of nine justices are women. 

Additional Sources: The Southern Judicial Tradition: State Judges and Sectional Distinctiveness, 1790-1890 Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional and NefariousThe Texas Supreme Court: A Narrative History, 1836–1986; Texas State Historical SocietyTexas Bar Association

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technology
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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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