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15 Incredible Historic Women You Should Know

March is Women’s History Month, and there’s no shortage of important women to celebrate. From fierce warriors to beloved poets, political activists to fearsome pirates, many women have made their mark on history, even if they aren't household names. To celebrate the many achievements of women, here are 15 incredible women you may not know about, but probably should.

1. EDMONIA LEWIS

One of the first internationally famous African American artists, Edmonia Lewis was born in New York in 1844 and studied art at Oberlin College before becoming a professional sculptor. She was known for her marble busts of famous abolitionists like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Horace Greeley, and her patrons included President Ulysses S. Grant.

2. ANYTE OF TEGEA

One the great poets of Ancient Greece, Anyte (3rd century BCE) was one of the earliest poets to write primarily about the natural world and not the supernatural, focusing on plants and animals instead of the gods. Anyte was famous for writing epitaphs, many of which were humorous in tone. In one, she satirized the seriousness of most human epitaphs by commemorating the life of a cicada kept as a pet by a little girl. She wrote, "Myro, a girl, letting fall a child's tears, raised this little tomb for the locust that sang in the seed-land and for the oak-dwelling cicada; implacable Hades holds their double song." More of Anyte’s works survive to this day than any other female Greek poet.

3. JEANNE BARET

Botanist and explorer Jeanne Baret was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. In 1766, the 26-year-old French woman boarded a ship disguised as a man named “Jean” and proceeded to sail around the world, collecting and studying plant samples with her paramour, the botanist Philibert Commercon. Her true gender was finally discovered somewhere in the South Pacific, and she and Commercon were kicked off the ship in Mauritius. Baret finally returned to France nearly a decade later, where she was lauded by the government as an “extraordinary woman” for her botanical work.

4. SARAH GUPPY

British inventor Sarah Guppy received 10 patents during her lifetime for a truly eclectic range of inventions. From a coffee maker that used its excess steam to boil eggs and warm toast to a device for removing barnacles from the bottoms of ships (for which the British Navy paid £40,000), Guppy was an unstoppable force in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. And her designs can still be seen: the stunning Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol would not have been possible without her 1811 plans for piling the foundations on either side of the Avon Gorge.

5. SAYYIDA AL HURRA

Sixteenth-century Islamic pirate queen Sayyida Al Hurra was both the governor of the city of Tétouan in Northern Morocco and a legendary pirate who ruled much of the western Mediterranean Sea for nearly 30 years, wreaking havoc on Spanish and Portuguese ships between 1515 and 1542. Though her real name is unknown, the honorary title "Sayyida Al Hurra" translates to "noble lady who is free and independent; the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority." She was also the last woman to hold the Al Hurra title.

6. MIRABAI

Mirabai, also known as Meera, was a 16th-century Indian poet who wrote numerous bhajans (prayerful songs) to the Hindu god Krishna. Mirabai was born into a wealthy family, but she eschewed her aristocratic life, devoting herself fully to the worship of Krishna and the singing of bhajans.

7. APHRA BEHN

Seventeenth-century playwright, novelist, poet, and government spy Aphra Behn may have been the first woman in England to earn her living as a professional writer. Though many men of her time vocally disapproved of female writers in general—and of the often risqué content of Behn’s writing specifically—her theatrical works were popular with audiences. Behn worked for most of her adult life as a writer, but took a brief break from the literary world from 1666 through 1667 when she traveled to Antwerp under the name "Astrea" to work as a spy for Charles II.

8. TRIỆU THI TRINH

Sometimes called the Vietnamese Joan of Arc, Triệu Thi Trinh (3rd century BCE) was a warrior who led a rebel army against Chinese invaders. Legend has it that she was 9 feet tall and fought over 30 battles against the Chinese, sometimes riding an elephant. When someone tried to discourage her from fighting, she famously said, "I will not resign myself to the lot of women who bow their heads and become concubines. I wish to ride the tempest, tame the waves, kill the sharks. I have no desire to take abuse."

9. HARRIET POWERS

Harriet Powers's pictorial quilt. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Born into slavery in Georgia in 1837, Harriet Powers became known as one of the greatest Southern textile artists in United States history. Throughout her life Powers used intricate quilts to tell stories, stitching stunning and elaborate images from Bible stories, myths, and celestial phenomena while also drawing on West African artistic traditions. Only two of her quilts survive today; one is held by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and the other by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

10. SARAH MOORE GRIMKE AND ANGELINA GRIMKE

Abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke were 19th-century orators and educators who traveled America lecturing on the horrors of slavery, and who penned numerous abolitionist tracts. They also spoke frequently on behalf of women’s rights, and were considered radical for arguing not only for the abolition of slavery, but in support of genuine racial and gender equality.

11. FANNIE FARMER

Nineteenth-century culinary expert Fannie Farmer is often called the "mother of level measurements." Farmer, who was born in Boston in 1857 and whose cookbooks are still in print over a century after their initial publication, helped standardize the cooking measurements which we now take for granted. 

12. LOZEN

A great Apache warrior, Lozen rebelled after she and her family were forced onto a reservation in the 1870s. Together with her brother Victorio, she led a band of warriors, raiding the lands that were taken from them by settlers. "Lozen is my right hand…strong as a man, braver than most, and cunning in strategy," Victorio famously said of his sister. "Lozen is a shield to her people."

13. QIU JIN

Chinese feminist, revolutionary, poet, and eventual martyr, Qiu Jin fought for women’s access to education and against foot binding, founded a feminist journal, and fought against the Qing Dynasty before being executed in 1907 at age 31 after a failed uprising. She often wrote poetry about current events and historical female warriors and is considered a national hero by many in China.

14. MARGARET E. KNIGHT

Born in Maine in 1838, Margaret E. Knight went from working in a factory to inventing a product that would change the world—or, at least, the way we package groceries—forever: the paper bag. Knight created a machine that could mass-produce paper bags with flat bottoms (while earlier paper bags existed, they were more like flat envelopes). Her creation not only had a huge impact on the paper industry at the time, but machines based on Knight’s original design are still in use to this day.

15. CAROLINE HERSCHEL

British astronomer Caroline Herschel was born in Germany in 1750 and spent her early years doing housework for her parents (she once called herself the "Cinderella of the family"). She later moved to England to help her astronomer brother run his household and became a great astronomer in her own right. Not only was Herschel the first woman to discover a comet, but she was the first woman to have her scientific writings published and to be paid for her work.

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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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