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America’s First Mandatory Education Law Was Inspired by Satan

On a typical weekday in the U.S., about 50 million kids are in public school all around the country. You can thank mandatory education laws and a robust public school system for that. But how did the United States achieve compulsory education for all, anyway? The roots of the practice might be older than you think—and the laws that got the country on the road to mandatory education have a weird connection to Satan. Yes, Satan.

It all started in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a settlement of Puritans who emigrated from England. The settlers were part of a “great migration” of Puritans—about 20,000 total—who flocked to New England between 1629 and 1640, driven by a desire to lead pious lives and worship freely. Their religious practices were stern and fervent; as one historian writes, “Puritans lived in a constant state of spiritual anxiety, searching for signs of God's favor or anger.”

One particular worry was Satan—the dark lord capable of leading humanity astray through distractions, deceptions, and any number of temptations. “Satan hath his Mysteries to bring us to Eternal Ruine,” wrote Puritan minister John Hale in a typical anti-Satan screed. “Mysteries not easily understood, whereby the depths of Satan are managed in hidden wayes.”

Every aspect of life in the new colony reflected the Puritan’s preoccupation with the devil’s doings. Massachusetts Puritans enacted strict laws based on their values, and focused on community members’ shared responsibilities to their faith and to each other. Special attention was paid to the moral and educational development of children, who were expected to be obedient and submissive to their elders.

Back in England, the educational system had been haphazard: Rich children were educated by tutors or members of the clergy, while poor ones were left to fend for themselves. The Puritans decided to try another method. In 1642, they passed a law that required every household head to be responsible for the education of all of their children and dependents (servants). The law required that everyone be taught to read, and if a parent failed, their child could be removed from their home.

But by 1647, the Puritan General Court decided that parents in the colony were falling short of their duty. And so the Old Deluder Satan Act was born [PDF]. The law’s name came from its first line, which reminded parents that “one chief project of that old deluder, Satan” was to keep men from reading the Bible. It was thought that Satan would have less power over children who understood “the true sense and meaning” of the Bible, something that could only be guaranteed if the child could read it themselves, without needing to rely on the “false glosses of Saint-seeming-deceivers” for interpretation of scripture.

Instead of relying on parents to educate their kids, the law put the responsibility on towns. Townships with 50 households or more had to fork out money and hire a schoolmaster to teach children to write and read at a “petty” or elementary school. If towns had 100 households or more, they had to set up a petty school as well as a full grammar school—one whose masters were “able to instruct youth so far as they may be fitted for the Universitie.”

Today, the Old Deluder Satan Act is thought of as the nation’s first compulsory education law. It remained on the books until 1789, a year after Massachusetts became a state, when it was incorporated into the Massachusetts Education Act. By then, however, mention of Satan was nowhere to be found.

It took more than a century for the American public school system as we know it to really take hold; before the latter half of the 19th century, not all states had compulsory education laws, and high schools were not yet common [PDF]. That changed during the Progressive Era, when reformers set to work establishing free schools and mandatory education for everyone—and it all started with a group of people convinced that Satan was at work in their community.

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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
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

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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