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Leonora Piper, Turn-of-the-Century Medium 

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Wikimedia Commons

When Leonora Evelina Piper (née Symonds) was 8 years old, she was out playing in the garden when she was overcome by a sudden and mysterious blow to the side of her head, accompanied by a hiss, which eventually became words and a message. In utter hysterics, the girl bolted for the house, where she told her mother: “Something hit me on the ear and Aunt Sara said she wasn’t dead but with you still.” A few days later a letter arrived. Sara had indeed died—on the same day, and around the same time the little girl had gone into a fit.

According to her parents, it wasn’t the only time in her childhood that Piper would show possible psychic predilections. But for the most part, the family set that aside. A daughter who might have the ability to commune with the afterlife isn’t necessarily something you want to advertise to the neighbors.

Leonora eventually grew up, married a shopkeeper named William Piper, and moved from New Hampshire to Boston. The pair had a daughter named Alta in 1884, who, despite bringing much joy to the couple, also aggravated a longtime injury in Piper. As a child, Piper had been involved in an ice-sledding accident that led to internal abdominal bleeding. Following Alta’s birth the pain was so bad Piper sought the help of a clairvoyant—an elderly blind man who purported to have the ability to contact healing spirits. When they touched, it ended up being Piper who experienced something otherworldly.

The young woman reportedly entered a trance-like state. She became dizzy and said she heard a myriad of voices, one of which came through clearly enough that she was able to write down a message. As soon as she was finished, Piper handed the dispatch to a man who was also at the parlor that day, a local judge, who said it was a message from his deceased son. As Deborah Blum writes in Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, Piper returned to the blind clairvoyant a few more times, but retreated after she found herself becoming the focus of attention. She was pregnant with her second daughter, and said she didn’t want to practice as a medium.

Despite that resistance, the budding mystic relented in 1885, agreeing to meet with a widow named Eliza Gibbens. According to Gibbens, Piper was able to relay personal details “the knowledge of which on her part was incomprehensible without supernormal powers.” Gibbens then sent her daughter, Margaret, to further test Piper. Margaret brought a sealed envelope with a letter penned in Italian, and the reluctant clairvoyant had no trouble reciting details about the person who had written it. Margaret and Eliza then decided to take the news to their sister and daughter, Alice, who had recently been quarantined with scarlet fever, and whose illness led to the death of her 1-year-old son, Herman. (After her quarantine, the child had been returned to Alice although she hadn't fully regained her strength; she developed whooping cough, and the infection soon spread to the child, where it turned into fatal pneumonia.)

Alice, and her husband William James—a Harvard professor, founder of the Society for Psychical Research, and skeptic who helped discredit several popular mediums in Boston—went to see Piper. With little knowledge about the couple or their recent circumstances, she successfully conjured the name of their deceased little boy (or at least James felt she did; the name Piper spoke was Herrin, not Herman).

"If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black … it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white. My white crow is Mrs. Piper,” James would later say in his 1896 presidential address to the Society for Psychical Research. Not everyone was so convinced, however, and James himself would later express skepticism of his own.

For years Piper held private readings at her home and allowed members from the British and American Societies for Psychical Research (SPR) to attend. She was reportedly completely cooperative when it came to inquiring minds, permitting researchers to frequently sit in on her séances. She was likely the most thoroughly scrutinized medium of her day: SPR members also sent test subjects and even hired private detectives to follow Piper and her husband around to see if they exhibited any behavior that might indicate information-gathering regarding potential clients. Their quests proved fruitless—no sign of fraud was ever found. According to Amy Tanner's 1910 book Studies in Spiritism, Piper charged $20 per séance (about $580 today), enough to help support her family.

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While in her trances, Piper used so-called “controls”—spirits that spoke through her. “Dr. Phinuit”—a Frenchman—served as the primary control in Piper's early mediumship, but she went on to become a supposed vessel for a number of spirits who would then communicate through voice or automatic writing. She also employed psychometry, a method in which the medium uses material objects to do readings, and was taken on several trips to Britain to demonstrate her supposed abilities there.

Despite her many believers—she was among the most famous of mediums in the age of Spiritualism—many others called Piper's supposed abilities a hoax, and not even a good one at that. She often failed to provide accurate details about her clients or their dearly departed, and persistent inaccuracies regarding her controls befuddled those who were studying her. (Dr. Phinuit for example, didn’t seem to know much about the French language or medicine, his two defining characteristics.) Another investigator tested Piper by concocting a story of a dead relative named Bessie Beale, and the medium went on to relay messages from the nonexistent spirit.

Some said Piper had multiple personalities, others believed her to be savvy mentalist with a knack for cold reading and “fishing,” and others still said she had a talent for surreptitiously learning details about guests before they sat down for a session. Even William James didn’t believe Piper was communicating with ghosts, but rather using telepathy, and drawing on memories and other information from her clients as well as others, perhaps even subliminally. The scholar could find no "independent evidence" to back the possibility of of spirit control.

Oddly enough, Piper herself would prove to be conflicted about the nature of her abilities. In a 1901 “confession” in the New York Herald [PDF], Piper announced her separation from the Society for Psychical Research and was quoted as saying, “I have always maintained that these phenomena could be explained in other ways than by the intervention of disembodied spirit forces … I am inclined to accept the telepathic explanation of all the so-called psychic phenomena, but beyond this I remain a student with the rest of the world.” She also described the spirit controls as "an unconscious expression of my subliminal self," and if all that wasn’t definitive enough: "I must truthfully say that I do not believe that spirits of the dead have spoken through me when I have been in the trance state …”

Needless to say the piece caused an uproar, and even caused SPR member Richard Hodgson, an avid believer, to write an open letter claiming she had been misunderstood. He also released a statement to the Boston Advertiser from Piper, which read: "I did not make any such statement as that published in the New York Herald to the effect that spirits of the departed do not control me. … My opinion is to-day as it was 18 years ago. Spirits of the departed may have controlled me and they may not. I confess that I do not know. I have not changed.”

Ultimately, all the press likely only served to fuel the interest in Piper and her clairvoyant services. And while we may never know what she truly believed, it didn’t matter when it came to the business of mediumship: She found fame and fortune in her séances, though she reportedly never sought much attention beyond continuing to meet with sitters and allowing herself to be repeatedly, almost obsessively observed for science.

In the early 1900s, Piper's trance abilities reportedly began to fade. She gave her last séance in 1911, and officially retired some years later. She lived to be 93 years old, dying on July 3, 1950 from bronchopneumonia at her home in Brookline, Massachusetts. She is buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Arlington, Massachusetts. History remembers her as a conflicted character—and as William James's one "white crow."

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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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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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