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The Woman So Homesick She Walked From New York to Alaska

Despite living in one of the mostly densely populated cities in America, Lillian Alling felt completely and utterly alone. A Russian immigrant, the 25-year-old Alling was introverted and reserved, furthering her sense of isolation. She perceived the New Yorkers of the 1920s to be aloof and elitist, looking down their noses at a foreigner struggling to feel like she belonged.

Alling had worked steadily since arriving in New York two years earlier, saving up money to board a steamer ship back to her native Russia. Despite her best attempts, she never had enough. Low on funds and desperate to return home, she packed a handful of possessions and began walking. Her plan was to make the more than 5000-mile trek on foot, refusing anyone who asked for an explanation.

Over the next several years, Alling would become known in the Yukon as a mysterious figure who hiked along paths that proved difficult even for experienced outdoorsmen. She was headed for Siberia, she said, and nothing—not winter, sickness, or the law—would stop her.

 While Alling would later morph into a folklore heroine of plays and poems, her biographers have been unable to uncover only traces of information about her past. It’s likely she arrived in New York City in 1925, but whether she was accompanied by any family or was compelled to move to America for any specific reason is unknown. Alling herself was of little help, answering only“I go to Siberia” when asked about her walk. She would later admit to making frequent trips to the New York Public Library to study geography, drawing herself a path that police would later declare an impressive piece of amateur cartography.

She began her trek by walking to Buffalo in late 1926 or early 1927. From there, it was on to Canada, and across the country into British Columbia. Alling was an unusual sight, with her mismatched men’s shoes and bedraggled clothing. It wasn’t often that females were found strolling alone for miles—Alling carried a metal bar for protection—and sometimes locals would feel compelled to ask who she was and what she was doing.

“I go to Siberia,” she repeated, barely slowing down her gait.

By mid-1927, Alling had gotten as far as Hazelton, British Columbia and the mouth of the Yukon Telegraph Trail, a rugged stretch of land covering over 1000 miles that linked Canada's far north with southern British Columbia. Every 20 to 30 miles, Alling would come across a cabin occupied by one of the trail’s linesmen, men responsible for maintaining communications equipment. Early in the trip, she was intercepted by a telegraph operator who found her appearance remarkable—her clothes torn and her skin stretched thin over her face, thanks to a diet of bread, roots, and berries that made her appear malnourished. Concerned, he called authorities.

The constable who answered the lineman’s call, J.A. Wyman, was distressed by the woman’s goal and feared that allowing her to continue would be unethical. He arrested her for vagrancy; a judge sentenced her to several months at the Oakhalla Prison Farm in Vancouver more out of concern than punishment. There, she’d be sheltered and fed until she regained her strength.

At the end of her time, Alling wasn't any less determined to continue her journey, though she stayed in Vancouver through spring 1928 to work and save money before resuming her walk. The judge had no legal grounds to interfere, but made her promise to continue checking in with the occupied cabins along the Telegraph Trail. She fulfilled the promise, accepting warm meals, changes of clothing, and even a canine companion from the sympathetic linesmen through the summer of 1928.

Word of Alling reached the town of Dawson City before she did, and local newspapers delivered breathless reporting of her progress and refusal to become a hitchhiker. “Mr. Chambers offered to give her a ride to the fork of the read but she declined,” read one piece. And in another: “The people of Dawson have been looking forward with an unusual degree of curiosity for her arrival there.”

The “mystery woman” arrived in town just in time for winter, where her stubborn forward motion would finally slow. She took a job as a waitress and used the money to buy a small, dilapidated boat, which she spent her free time repairing. When the weather grew warmer, she began paddling across the Yukon River to Alaska, where she is reported to have made it at least as far as Nome. From there, she would have to convince native people to take her across the Bering Strait and into Siberia. After years of traveling on foot, Alling was closer than ever to home.

 Alling’s modest boat was left on the coast of the Bering Strait in 1929. It would be the last physical trace of her that anyone was able to definitively identify. If she made it back into Russia, it would have been difficult for word to come back to the curious residents of Dawson City or any of the other towns she had passed through. At minimum, she had walked 5000 miles, with the spacing of the linesman cabins indicating she had often logged as much as 30 milesa day.

For decades, Alaska's Bering coast was where Alling’s story ended. Then, in 1972, an author named Francis Dickie published an account of Alling’s trip in True West magazine. Shortly thereafter, Dickie heard from a reader named Arthur Elmore who wrote in with a compelling postscript. Moore claimed that he had visited a town called Yakutsk in Siberia some seven years earlier. There, Elmore met up with a friend who had been in the Russian town of Provideniya in 1930.

Moore’s friend relayed the tale of a woman in tattered clothing who had been standing near the shore of the Bering Strait surrounded by native people from the Diomede Islands, which lie in between Alaska and Siberia. The entire party was being questioned by officials, who were suspicious of the visitors.

He overheard the woman talking about how she was an outsider in America and felt like she had to make a journey back home. She had walked a great distance, she said, but finally made it.

No one can say with certainty the woman of Elmore’s story was Lillian Alling. But to think she had spent years in dogged pursuit of her goal only to perish so close to the end seems improbable. Only about 50 miles of the Strait remained, and Alling had proven herself to be resourceful and stubborn beyond belief. Having come so far, the mists of the Bering and its dangerous waters seem inconsequential. For what little we truly know about Alling, one thing is a certainty: She would do anything to get home.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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