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Why Don't Human Cannonballs Die?

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Questions that have bedeviled legions of circus-goers and carnival connoisseurs: why doesn't the gunpowder kill the cannonballer before they exit the cannon? Do my eyes deceive me? And how can I break into the fast-growing field of human cannonballing? Patience, my friends. All in good time.

They don't actually use gunpowder

The "cannons" used by human cannonballers are actually giant catapults, and the smoke and explosions produced are just for show. The first human catapult act was performed in 1877, by a girl who was only 14 years old, using "elastic springs" to turn her into a living projectile. (She later went on to tour with P.T. Barnum.) The technology has changed a bit in recent years but the idea is the same: once a cannonballer clambers into his cannon, he stands on a platform about three-quarters of the way down the barrel. High-pressure compressed air is pumped into the chamber left between the platform and the bottom of the barrel, sending the platform to the top of the barrel -- and the cannonballer into the air.

Coming down is the hard part

Actually, plenty of human cannonballers do meet untimely ends on the job, but it's not usually the coming-out-of-the-cannon part that does it; according to Cecil "Straight Dope" Adams, of the 50 human cannonballers who'd had careers before the 1990s, 30 of them had been killed -- mostly by falling outside of the net. (Like this.) Dummy models are test-fired to help ensure a cannon's aim and accuracy, but the cannonballer himself has a big role to play -- there's a bit of mid-air acrobatics involved. You've got to turn just right in the air to ensure you land on your back rather than your neck.

The job's not for everyone

First of all, the pay's not great. Then there's the reality of having to live and travel with a circus, the romance of which wears of mighty fast, we'd imagine. Like most strange and unpleasant jobs, it's often passed on from parent to child: the Smith family, for instance, have been cannonballers for thirty years, despite the family patriarch's wish that he'd raised "doctors and lawyers" instead. (We get it: with the liabilities and injuries that come along with human cannonballing, free consultations from both couldn't hurt.)

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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