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A Sack Filled With an Enslaved Mother’s Love

Middleton Place Foundation

The story of slavery in the United States is one of brutality, splintered families, and erasure. For many descendants of enslaved people, genealogies and other family histories can break down, severed by the missing links that resulted when families were broken up and sold to separate masters. An artifact in the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture preserves a tiny attempt to fight back against that erasure. It’s known as “Ashley’s sack."

The unbleached cotton sack is the canvas for 56 words of embroidery—words with a tragic tale to tell. “My great grandmother Rose mother of Ashley gave her this sack when she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina,” it reads. “It held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her It be filled with my Love always she never saw her again Ashley is my grandmother Ruth Middleton 1921.”

The story of Rose, Ashley, and Ruth was common among millions of enslaved African Americans. It's been estimated that one-quarter of all enslaved people who crossed the Atlantic were children, and 48 percent were put to work before they turned 7 years old. Though slaves did manage to form family units, those families were generally disregarded by masters, who viewed them as chattel. Thus, slaves always ran the risk of being separated from their families—even children as young as 9-year-old Ashley.

When the sack—incredibly rare to have survived both slavery and the centuries—was purchased at a flea market in Tennessee in 2007, its origins were murky. As the Associated Press reports, the woman who discovered the sack realized it was valuable, but decided not to sell it on eBay. After some online research, she determined that the sack might have been connected to Middleton Place, a South Carolina plantation that is now a National Historic Landmark and museum and where African Americans were once enslaved. Museum officials purchased the sack and put it on display.

Reactions to the powerful story told on the bag were immediate and complex. Some volunteers felt overwhelmed or uncomfortable discussing the object. “Some volunteer guides complained that the sack, and the powerful reactions it engendered, distracted from the core mission of the tour: to highlight the wealth, political leadership, and cosmopolitanism of the white Middletons,” writes anthropologist historian Mark Auslander.

Intrigued by the bag, Auslander set out on a quest to discover the identity of Rose, Ashley, and Ruth. He used slavery records as well as bank, court, and census data to research the women. But he faced a number of obstacles: slave records often involve mass sales of unnamed women and children, many records have been destroyed, and Rose was a very common name for enslaved women.

The name Ashley, however, was not. His answers aren't definitive, but Auslander did find intriguing evidence of a child named Ashley owned by a South Carolina planter named Robert Martin in the 1850s, who also owned a woman named Rose. Using 1920 census records, Auslander was also able to find an African-African woman named Ruth Middleton who had family roots in South Carolina, and who died in Philadelphia in 1988. Her possessions likely ended up being given away, which is how the sack found its way to the flea market, Auslander theorizes.

No matter how the bag got to that flea market, it's near-priceless evidence of what slavery did to families and what they suffered both together and apart. Middleton House lent the bag to the NMAAHC, where it—and its story—is now displayed across from a block used in slave auctions.

[h/t: KUOW]

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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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