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Journalist Jennie June Was "Having It All" in the 19th Century

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Striking a happy balance between work and home has been a struggle for women for decades. Long before “having it all” permeated acclaimed sitcoms like 30 Rock and just about every women's magazine, it was the groundbreaking reality of journalist Jane Cunningham Croly, better known to her readers as Jennie June.

Jane Cunningham was born in England in 1829, but she grew up in the United States after her family emigrated in 1841. As a child, she ravenously ripped through the books in the library of her Unitarian preacher father. She also dipped her toe into journalism by volunteering on the semi-monthly newspaper her brother's ministry published in Massachusetts. After her father died in 1854, she boldly moved to New York City to seek work in the newspaper business under the pseudonym Jennie June. 

June faced a steep climb. The publishing industry was incredibly sexist, with editors effectively barring women from writing anything but “soft” news intended for female audiences. Unruffled, June leveraged one article in The New York Tribune into a column for Noah's Weekly Messenger called "Parlor and Side-walk Gossip." The column took off, and by 1857 papers as far away as New Orleans were printing June’s work, making her one of the first—if not the first—female journalists to be nationally syndicated.

Jumping Out of Hoops 

By the 1860s, she began writing for women's magazines like Mme. Demorest's Mirror of Fashions, Demorest's Monthly Magazine, Home-Maker Magazine, and The Cycle (which she founded). Within these pages, June ignored fashion magazines’ standard of celebrating traditional looks and spurning innovation. Instead, she used her platform to promote clothes that were both fashionable and functional. Her column "Talks With Women" suggested more "healthful" dress. June harbored a special hatred for bloomers, support hoops, and skirts that dragged on the ground, and favored cord corsets over whalebone ones. 

June columns championing practical clothes resonated with readers, and before long, other fashion writers were quoting her views. She was doing more than just talking, though—June’s position as Demorest’s chief staff writer enabled her to put savvier fashions in women’s reach. The title offered a pullout dress pattern with each issue, which allowed June to give 19th century American woman the tools they needed to reshape their wardrobes.

Written Pep Talks

June wanted to inspire women to change more than how they dressed. Her “Talks with Women" series pushed other issues close to June's heart, including success stories of accomplished women, the importance of women in the workplace, women’s access to education, equal pay, and their value in the home. The talks were a hit with readers and newsstand owners—The American Bookseller praised them as “sprightly and sensible.” In 1864, she collected her columns for the book Jennie Juneiana: Talks on Women's Topics. The intro gives some sense of her warmth and wit:

Dear Friend: Do not be angry that I have presumed to give you these simple thoughts in the pretentious form of a book. It was not my fault: I was told to do so, and I did it, - exactly how or why I cannot tell. I think I should not have done so, however, if I had not been conscious that, poor as they are, and written, some in sorrow, some in pain, and all in the hurry and excitement of a busy newspaper life, they contain nothing which can do any harm, and some things which may do a little good; that they are at least true, as the expression of thought, feeling and conviction; and from the very nature of the circumstances which produced them, may contain words which will go straight to the locked recesses of some woman’s heart, as others have to mine.

A Balancing Act

Amid her "busy newspaper lifestyle," June was also a devoted mother and proud homemaker. By 1877, she was her family’s sole breadwinner after a quarrel with his employers and eventual declining health forced her husband to stop working. For June, "having it all" required careful planning. She devoted the first three hours of her day to her children and household chores. By noon, she'd be in her office, where her husband and children knew not to disturb her as she worked through the wee hours of the night.

That is, unless she and Mr. Croly had plans to socialize with their famous friends, a group that included Louisa May Alcott, Alice and Phoebe Cary, and Oscar Wilde. To that entertaining end, June gladly shared recipes with her readers in the form of magazines as well as Jennie June's American Cookery Book, which notably contained Susan B. Anthony's preferred method of making Apple Tapioca Pudding.

Surprisingly, June did not share Anthony's passion for women’s suffrage. Although June was outspoken on gender equality in her writing, she shied away from pushing for voting rights, which may have helped make June a forgotten figure of early feminism. Historians have suspected that June felt other issues—like access to work and education—were more pressing matters for women. Once those goals were achieved, she believed, "All the rest will follow."

Building a Movement

On top of her storied journalism career, June also founded a series of women's clubs where issues of gender equality could be discussed within a strong community. She called the first Women’s Parliament in 1856 and the second in 1869. After June and fellow female journalists were barred from a talk Charles Dickens was giving in New York in 1868, she created her most famous club, Sorosis, which sought “collective elevation and advancement.” The rise of similar groups across the U.S. urged June to found the General Federation of Women's Clubs in 1890. In her book The History of the Woman’s Club Movement in America, she succinctly explained their origins and importance: "The woman has been the one isolated fact in the universe. The outlook upon the world, the means of education, the opportunities for advancement, had all been denied her.”

June thought the social connection and support system these clubs could provide would be a cure to this sense of isolation and powerlessness. Her efforts earned June the nickname Mother of Women's Clubs. Meanwhile, her expertise and acclaim as America's best-known female journalist helped her pioneer another profession when Rutgers University made her the first woman to teach journalism at the college level.

June worked in journalism and within her clubs until a fall at 69 forced her to slow down for the last three years of her life. Her 1901 New York Times obituary hailed June as the “first American newspaper woman,” and in 1994 June’s tireless advocacy for all women earned her enshrinement in the National Women's Hall of Fame. Whether women chose a path in education, homemaking, employment, or all of the above, the important thing for Jennie June was that they were able to choose. 

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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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