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Library of Congress

The Story That Launched Nellie Bly’s Famed Journalism Career

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Library of Congress

In 1885, the Pittsburg Dispatch published a letter from an “Anxious Father,” wondering what to do with his five unmarried daughters, alongside a response from columnist Erasmus Wilson entitled “What Girls are Good For.” The reply likely did nothing to soothe Anxious Father. In it, Wilson, who was known as the "Quiet Observer," or Q.O., went on a screed against the working woman—whom he declared “a monstrosity”—and insisted that the only proper place for the fairer sex was in the home. Wilson admonished the American parents who had let such standards slip and went so far as to suggest (ostensibly in jest) we might want to take a page out of China’s book and consider female-specific infanticide to deal with all our girls.

The paper received some blowback from women in the community. Among the Letters to the Editor that Wilson’s chauvinistic diatribe elicited was one from an anonymous “Lonely Orphan Girl.” Managing editor George Madden was so impressed with the ferocity and writing ability the letter exhibited that he published an ad in the paper inviting Lonely to come by the paper’s office for proper recognition. The next day, 20-year-old Elizabeth Cochran showed up.

Her father had been a wealthy man—her original hometown of Cochran's Mills, Penn. was named after him—with 15 children between two marriages. But after he died, when Elizabeth was just 6, her mother Mary Jane struggled to keep the family afloat. She married and divorced an abusive man and moved her family to Pittsburgh where Elizabeth helped run the family’s boarding home.

But her childhood dreams of writing professionally persisted, and when she arrived at the Dispatch’s offices, Madden offered her an opportunity to do just that. He asked her to turn her letter into a rebuttal piece about “the women’s sphere”—and when she did so with aplomb, the Dispatch hired her full time and gave her the pen name under which she would become famous: Nellie Bly.

The Girl Puzzle

“What shall we do with the girls?” the article, entitled "The Girl Puzzle" opened. "Those without talent, without beauty, without money."

She went on to address the Anxious Father and his five daughters specifically and practically. In evidence of much of her future work, "Bly" focused at first not on the rhetorical ideology of womanhood, or even feminism as we might understand it today, but rather the acute struggles of lower class single mothers.

Can they that have full and plenty of this world’s good realize what it is to be a poor working woman, abiding in one or two bare rooms, without fire enough to keep warm, while her threadbare clothes refuse to protect her from the wind and cold, and denying herself necessary food that her little ones may not go hungry; fearing the landlord’s frown and threat to cast her out and sell what little she has, begging for employment of any kind that she may earn enough to pay for the bare rooms she calls home, no one to speak kindly to or encourage her, nothing to make life worth living? If sin in the form of a man comes forward with a wily smile and says “fear no more, your debts shall be paid,” she cannot let her children freeze or starve, and so falls.

Having been born into wealth but having witnessed her mother struggle most of her life, Bly understood the impact that a person's class could have on the opportunities available to them.

Perhaps she had not the advantage of a good education, consequently cannot teach; or, providing she is capable, the girl that needs it not half as much, but has the influential friends, gets the preference.

Bly concluded this first portion of her essay—that which is addressed not at men but at "butterflies of fashions, ladies of leisure," who do not understand how their lower class sisters suffer—with a bleak reappropriation of Wilson's flippant remark about China.

Mr. Quiet Observations says: “In China they kill girl babies. Who knows but that this country may have to resort to this sometime.” Would it not be well, as in some cases it would save a life of misery and sin and many a lost soul?

The solution to this miserable cycle, Bly posits, is to treat girls as boys. She sees in her ambitious male counterparts the opportunity for greater social mobility that can traced back not to innate ability but to the opportunities open to them.

How many wealthy and great men could be pointed out who started in the depths but where are the many women? Let a youth start as errand boy and he will work his way up until he is one of the firm. Girls are just as smart, a great deal quicker to learn; why, then, can they not do the same?

Bly, who would go on to become a pioneer in the field of immersive investigative reporting, concludes her very first piece of published writing with an entreaty:

Here would be a good field for believers in women’s rights. Let them forego their lecturing and writing and go to work; more work and less talk. Take some girls that have the ability, procure for them situations, start them on their way, and by so doing accomplish more than by years of talking.

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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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May 23, 2017
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