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Native American Writer and Activist Susette La Flesche

Smithsonian Institution/ National Anthropological Archives // Public Domain

In 1879, one of the most popular speakers on the East Coast of the United States was a young Native American woman who would eventually help earn several important “firsts” for herself and her people.

Susette La Flesche was born in 1854 in Bellevue, Nebraska and given the name Inshata-Theumba, or Bright Eyes. Her father, Joseph La Flesche—also known as E-sta-mah-za, or Iron Eye—was the last traditionally recognized chief of the Omaha tribe, and the year Susette was born, he and other tribal leaders signed a treaty with the federal government giving up traditional Omaha lands and moving their people to a small reservation in what is now northeastern Nebraska, near a related tribe called the Ponca.

Like many Native American children of that era, Susette and her siblings attended a mission school, where she learned English as well as domestic skills such as sewing and cooking (several of the La Flesche siblings would also go on to illustrious careers, including Susette's sister Susan La Flesche Picotte, who became the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree). Susette attended college at New Jersey’s Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies, where she studied art and excelled at writing, and after she graduated, she decided to return to the Omaha reservation to teach. In the late 1870s, however, her life took a turn.

Around 1875, after decades of conflict with both the U.S. government and Sioux tribes that had been relocated to their land, the Ponca nation considered an offer to move to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, about 500 miles away. But when Ponca leaders visited potential settlement sites in early 1877, they rejected all of them as uninhabitable, with "stony and broken land" and poor, dispirited residents [PDF]. The government agents who were trying to find a resettlement point were unable to get further instructions from Washington and refused to transport the leaders back home, so the Ponca leaders walked back to Nebraska (except for two elders who were too frail to make the trip), arriving footsore and hungry in March 1877.

Although the specifics are debated, many historians think what happened next was due to a poorly translated deal that the Poncas thought would allow them to move to Omaha land but actually committed them to move to Indian Territory. The majority of the tribe was eventually made to walk to Baxter Springs, Kansas in the spring of 1877, an echo of the Cherokee Trail of Tears of the 1830s and the Long Walk of the Navajo in the 1860s, and with similarly devastating results. As many as one-third of the Ponca nation died of disease and starvation during the march and their first year in Indian Territory, including the son of Chief Standing Bear. After a miserable winter, the remainder of the tribe walked to a new reservation on the Arkansas River, in what is now Oklahoma. In January 1879, Standing Bear and a small party of Ponca set out for Nebraska again so that Standing Bear could bury the bones of his son on ancestral land. Once back in Nebraska, Joseph La Flesche and his daughter helped shelter them in the Omaha village. But after a confrontation with the U.S. government, Standing Bear and his companions were arrested and tried in 1879 in a federal district court in Omaha.

La Flesche was fluent in English and French as well as the Omaha and Ponca languages. Though she was incredibly shy, she became translator for Standing Bear, testifying during the trial in 1879 and writing for newspapers about the plight of Nebraska’s native peoples. At last, Judge Elmer Dundy issued a narrow but consequential ruling in favor of the Ponca: “An Indian is a person within the meaning of the law, and there is no law giving the Army authority to forcibly remove Indians from their lands.” Standing Bear v. Crook marked the first time Native Americans were recognized as people, entitled to protections under U.S. law.

As a result of the trial, the Ponca were allowed to return to a portion of their land in Nebraska. La Flesche, however, was only just getting started. With Standing Bear, her half-brother Francis, and an Omaha newspaperman named Thomas Tibbles—a lifelong reformer who had been instrumental in raising awareness of the Ponca's plight and whom she later married—La Flesche went on a speaking tour back East. She wore a deerskin dress and presented herself using her translated tribal name, Bright Eyes, speaking out about conditions on reservations and calling for overhauls of federal Indian policies. By 1887, she was touring England and Scotland during Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Year, lobbying for the rights and fair treatment of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. “Bright Eyes” had become an international sensation.

La Flesche also testified before Congress, met with President Rutherford B. Hayes and the first lady at the White House, and gained the admiration of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. She embarked on a distinguished writing and journalism career, one that would take her to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in in southwestern South Dakota to report on both the Ghost Dance movement and the massacre at Wounded Knee. She also wrote about Native American life for children’s magazines, and illustrated at least one book. For her efforts, she has been called the first published Native American writer and artist. She was also deeply involved in the Populist Party (a group that championed agrarian interests and industrial workers against bank and railroad titans), writing for papers like the American Nonconformist and the Lincoln Independent.

La Flesche died on May 26, 1903, at the age of 49. She was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1983. “Peaceful revolutions are slow but sure,” she once wrote. “It takes time to leaven a great unwieldy mass like this nation with the leavening ideas of justice and liberty, but the evolution is all the more certain in its results because it is so slow.”

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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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iStock
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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

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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