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11 People Who Lived to Read Their Own Obituaries

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You might think that the death of a famous person would be relatively easy to double check before reporting it—but you would be wrong. For hundreds of years, the news has been jumping the gun on the deaths of some of our most celebrated personalities, so these 11 all had the surreal experience of reading their own obituaries.

1. Mark Twain

Twain is the most famous person to have had his death reported incorrectly, but the story most of us think we know is actually a combination of two. In 1897, his cousin was dying and a reporter, mixing up his Twains, sent an inquiry to Twain’s publisher asking if he had passed yet, but was corrected before an obituary ran. It was when retelling this story that Twain wrote his famous (though often misquoted) line, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Ten years later, Twain actually did get a premature obituary of sorts published. While he was yachting, the waters his boat was supposed to be in became rough, and the air foggy. The New York Times published a piece saying it was likely he had been lost at sea. The next day Twain, whose boat hadn’t set off yet, got to rebuff the article with one of his own.

2. Alfred Nobel

While the story may be apocryphal, it's said that Nobel decided to start giving his famous prizes after reading about his death in the French papers. His brother had recently died, and at least one publication got confused and announced that the inventor of dynamite had passed on, under the not-at-all subtle headline, “The Merchant of Death Is Dead.” Since Nobel was a pacifist who hated that his discovery was killing people, he was allegedly inspired to rehabilitate his name before his real obituary ran.

3. Titan Leeds

Benjamin Franklin decided to annoy one of his business rivals in 1733 by announcing in Poor Richard’s Almanac that Titan Leeds, the producer of his own almanac, would die at 3:29pm on October 17 of that year. When Leeds didn’t die and made fun of Franklin for that fact in his own almanac, Franklin decided to run an obituary for him anyway. He kept the game up for years, insisting that the real Leeds was dead, and that the man calling himself Leeds had stolen his identity. This meant the real Leeds had to continue to insist he was in fact still alive until he actually did pass away 5 years later, at which point Poor Richard’s ran a note congratulating the “fake” publisher for finally accepting that Leeds was dead.

4. Marcus Garvey

The Jamaican politician is the only person known to have possibly been killed by their premature obituary. In 1940, Garvey suffered a stroke, and his death was reported in a Chicago paper which he happened to read. Unfortunately, the obituary was completely unflattering, saying the once loved man had died “broke, alone and unpopular.” According to legend, the stress of reading about what people really thought of him was so stressful it brought on another stroke, which actually did kill him.

5. Ernest Hemingway

After Hemingway was almost killed in a plane crash in 1954, numerous papers reported his death. Not only was the writer not bothered by this, he is said to have put together a scrapbook of all the obituaries and read them after breakfast every morning while drinking a glass of champagne.

6. Bill Henry

Henry might not be the most famous baseball player of all time, but his career, which included 16 years in the majors and two World Series appearances, was big enough that his death made the national news. And there was no mistake this time—there was a body and everything. Bill Henry was definitely dead.

This probably came as a shock to the real Bill Henry, who heard about his death on the news and after looking into it discovered that the man who had died had stolen his identity. A retired salesman had convinced everyone he was the retired baseball player, including his wife of 19 years, who said he even used to go to elementary schools and talk about his sports career.

7. Joe DiMaggio

In 1999, the baseball great was watching a movie in his home with his friend Morris Engelberg. He stopped the movie to do something at almost the exact moment that an NBC news crawl announced he had just died. The crawl only ran once and a retraction was issued 20 minutes later, so it was astonishing DiMaggio had seen it live. Engelberg reported that his friend was furious at first but calmed down when he started joking about them both being in heaven together.

8. Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In 1816, the famous poet was minding his own business at a hotel, enjoying a coffee, when he heard the men at the table next to him discussing his recent suicide. The paper they were reading had reported he had hanged himself. Coleridge asked to read the article and then announced who he was. In typical polite English fashion the men were mostly concerned they might have hurt his feelings by talking about his death in such a way.

9. The CNN Incident

If CNN had their way, April 16, 2003 would have been one of the most tragic days in history. That day their website announced the deaths of, among others, Fidel Castro, Dick Cheney, Nelson Mandela, Bob Hope, Gerald Ford, Pope John Paul II, and Ronald Reagan. While the sheer number of people listed as having just died should have been a clue something was wrong, the incident is also a good example of why you should always read the actual article. While the headlines may have looked accurate, the information in them was decidedly not, since most of the obituaries were just templates that borrowed text from others, specifically the late Queen Mother. This resulted in Dick Cheney being memorialized as “the UK’s favorite grandmother.”

10. Pope John Paul II

The late pope may have been the only person to have his death falsely announced three times during his lifetime. In 1981, CNN anchors referred to him repeatedly as if he was deceased after he had been shot. The same network again announced his death as part of their 2003 incident (above). Finally someone else got it wrong, although FOX was much closer; they announced the pope was dead on his actual date of death, but they jumped the gun by several hours after failing to confirm their source’s information was correct.

11. Lal Bihari

While he may not have read an actual obituary, the falsely reported death of this Indian farmer had a bigger effect on his life than anyone else on this list. When Bihari went to apply for a bank loan in 1975, he discovered that officially he was not alive and therefore did not qualify for any money. It seemed a relative had paid off a government official to register Bihari as deceased in order to steal his farmland.

Despite being very much alive, and even running for public office in 1989, it took this poor farmer 19 years of activism on behalf of himself and others who had also been falsely declared deceased before he was finally declared alive again.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]