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Chloe Effron // Wikimedia Commons (Londonderry), iStock (Background)

Annie Londonderry, First Woman to Cycle Around The World

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Chloe Effron // Wikimedia Commons (Londonderry), iStock (Background)

The grandest accomplishment of bicyclist Annie Londonderry might seem like little more than a peculiar publicity stunt today. But within the context of her time, her trip around the world was downright revolutionary.

On a sunny summer day in Boston, June 25, 1894, Londonderry was readying herself to make history. Five hundred people had gathered around the steps of the Massachusetts State House, eager to see her off on her momentous journey. Londonderry wasn't new to travel: She had already traversed Europe and the Atlantic Ocean to emigrate from Latvia to the United States. Of course, back then she was Annie Cohen. At 18, she'd married Max Kopchovsky, taken his name and within four years borne three of his children. Now at 24, this spirited young woman made a new name for herself as part of a branding deal with Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company. For $100, she agreed to affix a promotional placard to her bike, and to take their brand name as her own as she made her way around the world.  

Cycling had not only hit its peak popularity by the 1890s but also became inextricably tied to early feminism. The bicycle gave women more freedom to go wherever they wanted, whenever they saw fit. It made women feel powerful, strong, and self-reliant, and became the favored conveyance of suffragettes like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who once said: "Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. … I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel." 

Yet not everyone was thrilled by women's interest in autonomy through cycling. Many scorned the new bloomer fashions that made the activity easier. Doctors concocted the condition "bicycle face," which essentially attempted to play on females' supposed vanity in order to dissuade them from riding. The 1895 Literary Digest described this affliction thusly: "Over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel, and the unconscious effort to maintain one's balance tend to produce a wearied and exhausted 'bicycle face' … usually flushed, but sometimes pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes, and always with an expression of weariness."

Londonderry was well aware of the controversy over women cyclists, but this clever wife and mother was more than happy to be a poster girl for the movement, especially if it meant she could make bank. Her trip around the world was no lark—it was a bet, and one masterfully planned to play upon the trends of her time. Though specifics on its origin have been largely lost to time, it's believed two affluent "clubmen" in Boston laid down the challenge. Londonderry had 15 months to not only circle the globe from her bicycle seat, but to earn $5,000 along the way (about $135,000 today). Jules Verne's 1873 novel Around the World in Eighty Days had ignited public interest in such ambitious endeavors. (Nellie Bly—best known for her harrowing reporting from Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island—underwent a similar voyage later, in 1889.) By linking in the controversial bicycling bit, Londonderry concocted a journey that positively captured the world's imagination.

Though our headstrong heroine set out from Boston in a long skirt considered ideal for this Victorian era, she soon swapped to a more functional men's riding suit, which sparked criticisms of impropriety and even some accusations that she was no woman at all. She didn't sweat the outrage, but relished the headlines it scored.

A masterful self-promoter, Londonderry spun wild—and often conflicting—tales to newspapers about her route, and even her background. Over the course of her journey, she'd claimed to be an orphan, an accountant, an affluent heiress, a Harvard medical student, a lawyer, the relative of a congressman, and—perhaps most curiously—the inventor of a new form of stenography. Readers and reporters couldn't get enough, and she soon became an international sensation. Her tall tales of brushes with death, frozen rivers, German royalty, dangerous superstition, and vicious tigers were recounted in newspapers far and wide. This was all part of the savvy businesswoman's plan. Along with the Londonderry spring water placard, she sold more ad space on her bike. But that's not all: Having cultivated controversy and celebrity, she also arranged for paid appearances, and sold promotional photographs of herself to fans eager to be a part of her adventure.

Traveling with a small suitcase that contained a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver, she cycled from Boston to New York (after a side trip to Chicago), then sailed to Le Havre, France. From there she cycled south to Marseilles, heading to Alexandria, Colombo, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, employing a steamship when necessary. By March of 1895, Londonderry and her bike had made it to San Francisco. After returning to Boston on September 24, 1895, the New York World declared her globe-trekking “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.” But she wasn't through yet.

The following month, Londonderry moved her family to New York City, where she channeled her drive and all she'd learned about storytelling and the press into a fresh identity: The New Woman. That was the byline of her column for the New York World, where she wrote: "I am a journalist and 'a new woman,' if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do."

Annie Londonderry's feat was a challenge on many fronts: navigation, physical endurance, mental fortitude, and entrepreneurial creativity. This zany publicity stunt not only earned her the world's eye, but also proved the capabilities of a woman on her own in the world. Not long after writing about her journey, she retired from the reporter grind to focus on raising her family. And despite all the headlines she'd made, she faded into obscurity. That is, until 2007, when her great nephew Peter Zheutlin reminded us all about this remarkable woman with the book Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry's Extraordinary Ride.

Annie "Londonderry" Kopchovsky passed away in 1947, having successfully traveled the world on her own terms. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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]