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Eight (and a half) People Whose Jobs Actually Killed Them

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We've all made those offhand comments: "This job is killing me," "I'd rather die than go to work this morning," and my personal favorite, "This job is sucking my will to live." But sometimes people's jobs really do kill them. I'm not too worried about myself; there probably aren't a whole lot of freak writing accidents (fatal writer's block? Paper cut to the wrist?) But racecar drivers, rock stars, baseball players and jockeys are all rather hazardous professions that sometimes cause on-the-job deaths. So next time you compare work to dying a slow death, think about these guys and remind yourself that your job isn't so bad.

1. Frank Hayes, Jockey

Hayes got the last laugh when he beat 20-1 odds to win at Belmont Park in 1923. At least, he would have gotten the last laugh if he was still alive when the race was over. Hayes was not a jockey by trade - he was actually a stablehand who managed to talk the owner of a horse into letting him ride. Sweet Kiss, the horse, came in first, but Hayes had a heart attack and died during the race. He was strapped on to Sweet Kiss well enough that he stayed upright right across the finish line. Even though the horse was a proven winner, no one wanted to ride it after that, nicknaming him "Sweet Kiss of Death". To date, Hayes is the only deceased jockey to win a race.

2.Les Harvey, Guitarist

In May 1972, Scottish band Stone the Crows lost their guitarist Les Harvey during a concert when he was electrocuted by a microphone onstage. His hands were wet and the microphone wasn't grounded. This makes Harvey part of the 27 Club, which you can read up on in my previous post on curses that seem to be working.

3. Jane Dornacker, Traffic Reporter

jane.jpgPoor Jane Dornacker survived one helicopter crash in 1986, only to be killed by another one six months later. Dornacker was a traffic reporter for WNBC Radio in New York City. In the first crash, her helicopter landed in the Hackensack River and both she and the pilot were able to swim to shore. The second crash, however, proved to be fatal. The copter stalled in midair, plummeted, struck a chain link fence and ultimately ended up in the Hudson River. It sank in 15-20 feet of water, where she and the pilot were trapped for nearly 15 minutes. She died on the way to the hospital. The pilot survived. Before Jane's days as a reporter, she was a rock star, comedian and actress.

4. Ray Chapman, Shortstop

chapman.jpgImagine being hit in the head by a 100 mph fastball, no helmet. Yeah, not good. That's what happened to Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman on August 16, 1920, when he was beaned in the temple by a spit ball thrown by Yankees pitcher Carl Mays. He actually tried to walk to the clubhouse on his own, but collapsed before he could make it.

Surgery revealed that his brain was damaged on both sides - both from where the ball hit, of course, and also from when the force of the impact made his brain hit his skull on the other side of his head. Chapman died a few hours after the surgery. The 1920 Indians went on to win the World Series.

5. J.G. Parry-Thomas, Race Car Driver

Everyone knows about NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt's untimely death at the 2001 Daytona 500, but Welsh driver J.G. Parry-Thomas predated him by about 65 years. In 1927, Parry-Thomas was trying to break the land-speed record of 174.22 mph. Around 170 mph, a exposed chain on the car snapped, pretty much decapitating him. Although there are varying reports, from what I gather, he set a personal speed record but did not beat the world record.

6. Tiny Tim, Singer/Ukulele Player

Tiny Tim almost died on stage "“ he had a heart attack during a concert in Minneapolis on November 30, 1996. He had been warned earlier that year that his heart was in a very fragile condition and that he should no longer perform, but he kept playing concerts anyway. He died later that day at a local hospital after doctors had attempted to resuscitate him for more than an hour.

7. "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott, Guitarist

dimebag.jpgYet another musician who died on stage in recent years is "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott, Pantera's lead guitarist. Although it wasn't the job that actually killed him, it was the fame that came with being part of Pantera that caused a crazed fan to gun down Dimebag Darrell during a 2004 concert. The man who shot him was a paranoid schizophrenic who believed that the band could read his mind and was stealing songs from him.

8. Joe Burrus, Escape Artist

Before David Blaine, there was Joe Burrus. Burrus was an escape artist who idolized Houdini "“ fitting, then that he died exactly 64 years after his hero. On Halloween in 1990, Burrus was chained and handcuffed inside a clear acrylic coffin seven feet below ground. The coffin was topped with dirt, followed by concrete. The concrete had not quite filled the hole when suddenly it dropped by about two feet, making it clear that the plastic coffin underneath had broken. By the time rescue workers pulled Burrus out of his self-made grave, he was already dead. Hopefully David Blaine takes this lesson to heart.

Not quite "on the job" but worth a mention anyway:

8.5. Thomas Midgely, Jr., Inventor

Thomas Midgely, Jr., was a celebrated inventor and chemist, who, among other things, discovered Freon (that stuff used in refrigeration and air conditioning systems). When he was diagnosed with polio and left disabled in 1940, he just couldn't suppress his inventor's spirit "“ he built a pulley system to move him in and out of bed. Unfortunately, it was this system that did him in "“ he accidentally strangled himself with one of the cords.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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