Lady Deborah Moody, the Dangerous Woman Who Started a Colonial Town

Being dubbed "dangerous" in colonial days was almost as bad as being declared a witch—women who fell afoul of social norms were often killed. So Lady Deborah Moody did what any dangerous woman with her wits about her should: She grabbed a bunch of her friends, left civilization as she knew it, and started her own village instead.

Born Deborah Dunch in Wiltshire, England around 1586, the future lady had it much better than many of her contemporaries as the daughter of the man in charge of the Royal Mint. She later married a man named Henry Moody who, like her father, worked hard to elevate himself in a world constricted by inflexible class roles. Her husband became a knight and then bought himself a baronetcy, which earned him a higher place in society, but not necessarily other people's hearts. As sheriff of Wiltshire and a notorious poacher, he made plenty of enemies, and may have made one of Deborah herself when he was accused of illegitimately fathering a child around 1620.

When Henry died in 1629, Deborah found herself impoverished. Then in her forties, she was forced to sell much of the family property to pay her late husband's debts. But she found comfort in religion, attending Quaker services in London and becoming a fervent Anabaptist—someone who believed that children shouldn't be baptized at birth, but instead when they were old enough to decide for themselves. This was seen as nothing short of revolutionary at the time, and the word Anabaptist became shorthand for anyone who went against the grain. With her outspoken religious views, Deborah soon found herself firmly in that category.

Not only did Deborah have controversial religious views—she also had legal trouble. After moving to London from her country home, a local court forced her back to her hereditary lands "as a good example necessary for the poorer class." Incensed by her lack of physical and religious autonomy, she headed for what she assumed would be a more tolerant place: the American colonies, which were known for their communities of religious dissidents.

But when Deborah arrived in Massachusetts in 1640, she realized she had made a mistake. (Perhaps her real mistake was then moving to Salem, which would accuse and prosecute women for witchcraft about 50 years later.) Though she became a member of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and joined the Salem Church, she soon ran afoul of Puritan religious philosophies. Anabaptism was considered sinful there, too, and in 1642 she was admonished for her refusal to believe in the baptism of infants.

Not only did her church publicly admonish her, but she ended up being excommunicated. John Winthrop, the colony's governor, was a friend of Deborah's, and wrote in his diary that unfortunately Deborah was "infected with anabaptism," although he also felt she was "a wise and anciently religious woman, being taken with the error of denying baptism to infants." Nevertheless, one of his colleagues summed up the feelings of other colonists when he decried her as "a dangerous woman."

Cast out and unwilling to change her views, Deborah moved again, this time to Dutch New Netherland. Once there, she asked Director-General William Kieft if she and some other dissenting friends could move into his colony. After getting the thumbs up, Deborah set up a town on the southwestern tip of Long Island, becoming the first woman to charter land in the New World.

Gravesend, as it was called, was located in what is today Brooklyn, but at the time it didn't resemble much of anything. It also wasn't territory she was exactly free to settle—though Kieft gave her the heads up that Native Americans owned the land, he felt free to disenfranchise them. Deborah initially paid the landowners money, but tensions rose and eventually she was temporarily driven off of the land she had claimed during violent uprisings against Kieft and the settlers of New Amsterdam.

Eventually, the settlers fended off their attackers, and Deborah and the surviving settlers moved back to Gravesend. There, Deborah set about an early form of city planning: She divided the village into four perfect squares ringed by a wall, with the land inside the wall subdivided into 10 lots per quadrant, and the land outside divided into triangular farms. All lots were distributed on an egalitarian basis to every male head of household, instead of to the wealthiest and most powerful, as was the common practice in English communities.

Deborah lived there until her death in 1659, in a town that finally afforded her the religious freedom she had fought so hard to obtain. More than 350 years later, Gravesend is a neighborhood in south-central Brooklyn near Coney Island, where Deborah's street grid is still being used—a testament to the fact that sometimes being a dangerous woman is a very good thing.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]