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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Accidental First Female Senator

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Hattie Caraway wasn’t supposed to become a U.S. Senator. But when she did, she became the first woman to be elected to that office ever. How did a woman without an interest in serving in public office end up making history, anyway? 

Call it a combination of bad luck and sheer doggedness. Caraway was a schoolteacher when she married Thaddeus Caraway, an Arkansas Democrat who worked his way from prosecutor to Congressman to Senator. But in 1931, at the age of 60, he developed a blood clot and dropped dead.

This was not just a tragic bereavement for Hattie, but a death that triggered something so common it became known as “the widow’s succession.” In 1922, John Nolan had won a sixth congressional term, but died soon afterwards. In January 1923, his widow, Mae Ella Nolan, had won a special election to fill the vacated congressional seat as well as serve the full term he had been elected to before his death. This set a precedent within the House of Representatives that allowed women, many of whom already closely advised their husbands and came from powerful political families, to help provide a smooth transition without causing the need for party leaders to scramble for a replacement.

There had already been a woman Senator, too—the outspoken suffragette Rebecca Latimer, who, at 87, was sworn in as Senator and served a symbolic 24-hour term after being appointed as an interim senator by a governor who wanted to appease women voters for having voted against women’s suffrage. But Latimer didn’t really serve.

On the first day Caraway walked into the Senate, she supposedly declared that “the windows need washing!” But Caraway took her temporary position as Senator for the state of Arkansas seriously—so seriously that she decided not to step aside once a special election could be held. Instead, on January 12, 1932, she ran for, and won, her husband’s old seat on her own merits, making her the first woman elected to the Senate. And she decided to run for the seat again in that year’s November election. 

“I am going to fight for my place in the sun,” she told reporters and her surprised colleagues. And fight she did. Caraway had an ace in her pocket: Louisiana senator Huey Long, whom her husband had long supported.  With a little over a week to go before the Democratic primary, Long and Caraway went on a week-long tour of Arkansas, making such an impression that she won handily, carrying almost 45 percent of the vote despite being expected to win just 2000 votes. In 1930s Arkansas, winning the Democratic primary was virtually the same thing as winning the election, which she did by a 9-1 margin.

Now that she was in the Senate on her own merits, Caraway got down to business. She was primarily a Roosevelt Democrat, supporting most New Deal policies. Though women had only recently won the vote, her political sympathies didn’t extend to politically oppressed people of color. In 1938, she voted against an anti-lynching law and even called it “a gratuitous insult to the South.” (While she was opposed to lynchings, she was concerned this bill was designed to “destroy the South not only as a political entity but as a business threat.”)

Caraway won the Democratic primary by a slim margin in 1938, but failed to regain her nomination in 1944. Still, she earned a reputation as a hardworking, mainly quiet presence in the Senate. “Silent Hattie” became a legend for what she didn’t say—she spoke on the floor of the Senate just 15 times during her career—as much as for her quick wit and withering quips. (Her most famous quote: “I haven’t the heart to take a minute away from the men. The poor dears love it so.”) 

But though she traded on her femininity when it was to her advantage—like when Huey Long painted her as a meek woman being trampled upon by politicians—she also had a pragmatic view of a woman’s role in Congress. “Women are essentially practical because they’ve always had to be,” she said. “And women are much more realistic than men, particularly when it comes to public questions.” Translation: Caraway would probably have managed to show up for work after a major snowstorm, too.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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iStock

Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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