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5 Ways the 'Little House on the Prairie' Books Stretched the Truth

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Little House on the Prairie / iStock

There’s nothing weirder than learning that one of your favorite stories didn’t really happen that way. For the thousands of devoted fans of the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, that problem is particularly acute. After all, the books are based on real events—but events that are also largely fictitious. Where does history end and fiction begin? 

1. THE INGALLS FAMILY DIDN'T ALWAYS HEAD WEST

From the moment the Ingalls family sets out in their wagon and leaves the Little House in the Big Woods, the Little House books show an unceasing push West. Real life and Manifest Destiny don’t always line up, though, and in fact the Ingalls family tracked back and forth several times before setting down in De Smet, South Dakota.

The Ingalls family’s first stop after Wisconsin was Independence, Kansas (with a possible stop in Missouri), where they built a “little house” on the open prairie. But the land was not theirs to settle: It was owned by the Osage people [PDF] and the Ingalls family, like thousands of other settlers, were squatters waiting for the Osage to be driven out so that the United States could take it over. It’s not entirely clear why the Ingalls family left, but instead of continuing west they went back to Wisconsin.

Next, they went west again, this time settling near Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Then, financial difficulties, illness, and a plague of locusts forced them to move on. They went to visit family elsewhere in Minnesota, but while there, Laura’s 10-month-old brother, Freddie, died after a sudden illness. Then they continued on to Burr Oak, Iowa, where they ran a hotel. The Ingallses then backtracked to Walnut Grove, where Mary lost her vision, then went west again and eventually settled in what is now South Dakota.

Nonetheless, Laura and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who heavily edited and helped develop the first books, decided that the fictional Ingallses should always move West. The result is a sense of wanderlust and movement that gives the series its structure.

2. JACK, LAURA'S DOG, DIDN'T LEAVE KANSAS

Aw, Jack! Laura’s happy little puppy pal! Though faithful Jack tracks the fictional Laura through the books until she becomes an adolescent, Laura revealed in Pioneer Girl, the original autobiography that formed the basis for the books, that he was actually left behind in Kansas when Pa traded him for some horses and ponies. When writing the book, Laura decided to have Jack die peacefully in his sleep—perhaps in a way she could control, as opposed to the uncertain fate of her real-life dog.

3. MARY INGALLS PROBABLY DIDN'T HAVE SCARLET FEVER

Everyone knows the story of how Mary Ingalls contracted scarlet fever and lost her sight permanently. Except she probably didn’t. Dr. Beth Tarini, a professor and pediatric and adolescent medicine specialist, obsessed over Mary’s diagnosis from the time she was a child, then discovered in med school that scarlet fever can’t blind someone.

But viral meningoencephalitis can—and Tarini thinks that Laura and her daughter, Rose, attributed the blindness to scarlet fever either to make the story more accessible to kids or because the disease may have already been familiar from other novels like Little Women. She even published an academic paper about it [PDF]. (In real life, Laura wrote Mary had "spinal meningitis," which she crossed out and replaced with "some sort of spinal sickness. I am not sure if the Dr. named it.” She also wrote that the blindness was caused by a stroke, but Tarini deemed a stroke unlikely since there were no other signs of one.)

Mary may not have gone blind from scarlet fever, but she did lose her sight. She ended up attending the Iowa College for the Blind, where she could take classes like civil government, botany, and piano tuning. Mary was an adept student and put the industrial training she got there to good use: After Pa died, she made fly nets to help the family earn more money.

4. THE INGALLS FAMILY HAD GUESTS DURING THE LONG WINTER

Houses were small in the pioneer era, but that didn’t mean that they were all devoted to single-family living. During the “hard winter” of 1880-81, the Ingalls family took in a couple named Maggie and George Masters. George was the son of a family friend and Maggie was his new wife, who had married him in an apparent shotgun wedding situation. “Maggie didn’t want the baby to be born at her folks’ and disgrace them,” Laura wrote in a letter to her daughter, Rose. “George’s folks were mad because he married her.”

The Masters family were not the best of houseguests. In her notes to Pioneer Girl, Ingalls scholar Pamela Smith Hill explains that Maggie had her baby in the house without the assistance of a doctor, and the newlyweds ran out of money and kept wearing out their welcome. “Times like this test people,” wrote Laura, “and we were getting to know George and Maggie.”

So why aren’t they in The Long Winter, the award-winning book that relates the story of a winter so extreme, the blizzards lasted six months? Chalk it up to authorial savvy: Laura felt it would dilute the power of a family stuck inside their house, forced to face the elements as a unit.

5. NELLIE OLESON WASN'T A REAL PERSON

If there’s a villain in the Little House books, it’s Nellie Oleson, the snooty brat who torments Laura when they're girls and tries to steal Almanzo from Laura when they're young women. In reality, though, there wasn’t a single Nellie Oleson. She is thought to have been a composite of three real-life people named Genevieve Masters, Nellie Owens, and Stella Gilbert. Laura had unpleasant run-ins with all three, interactions she apparently never forgot.

BONUS: “ALMANZO” WASN'T PRONOUNCED AL-MAHN-ZO

Laura gives her beau, Almanzo, a sweet nickname in the books: Manly. (She also referred to him as “the man of the place” in real life.) That’s for good reason—his name was pronounced Al-MAN-zo, not Al-mahn-zo.

The wrong pronunciation apparently took hold through the confounding influence that was the Little House on the Prairie TV show—a polarizing pop culture phenomenon that also introduced inaccuracies and anachronisms like adopted children and basketball into the fictional Ingalls family.

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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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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