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3 Heartbreaking Tales of "Freaks"

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By Adam Horowitz

In 1749, G.L.L. de Buffon introduced an influential classification system in his book, Varieties of the Human Species, Of Monsters. "Monsters", as human anomalies were labeled at the time (as if the term "˜freaks' weren't offensive enough), were broken down into 3 categories: 1) those by addition; 2) those by omission; and 3) those by reason of the reversal or wrong positioning of parts. To correspond with de Buffon's breakdown "“ which is now scientifically obsolete but appealing in its simplicity - we present the stories of 3 remarkable real-life anomalies, 1 for each category:

The Siamese Twin and Champion Skater Who Got His Brother Arrested

(Anomalies by addition.) The Godina brothers were Siamese twins born in the Philippines in 1906. Because they were pygopagus "“ i.e. connected at the buttocks - they possessed great flexibility (relatively speaking) and actually became accomplished dancers and champion skaters.

Unfortunately, one day in Manila, Lucio got in an accident while driving drunk and injured the other driver. He initially received a jail sentence, but got off when the judge deemed it unfair to incarcerate innocent Simplicio too. A hefty fine was imposed instead, which upset Simplicio to the point that he told his brother he would no longer perform. Simplicio was forced to reconsider his position, however, when Lucio responded with a suicide threat. The Godinas married identical twin sisters and traveled to the U.S., where the foursome danced the tango on tour. But in 1936, Lucio caught pneumonia and died unexpectedly. An emergency operation was performed, separating Simplicio from his brother, but a complication ensued and Simplicio died just 12 days later.

"The Half-Man" and his Incredible Magic Trick

ajohnny_eck.jpg(Anomaly by omission.) Johnny Eck, "The Half-Man", was born in 1911 with a twin brother Robert. Robert came out first and was perfectly normal, but a few minutes later Johnny appeared with a body that seemed to consist of just half a torso. He had a truncated spine with virtually no body whatsoever below it. Despite his disability, Johnny was quite intelligent and even athletic, quickly learning how to walk and run on his hands. At an early age, he fell in love with the circus, and in 1923 his mother signed him over to a magician to be his manager. Unfortunately, the manager was a swindler, and he altered Johnny's contract from 1 year to 10 by adding an extra zero. He also promised Johnny a high salary, but gave him only $200 a week while the manager himself raked in over $100 a day. Fortunately, Johnny escaped the manager's clutches, but just a few years later ended up falling in with yet another crooked manager when he starred in Tod Browning's classic movie Freaks. The new manager had arranged it so that he himself received over 90% of Johnny's salary.

All wasn't tragic however. In 1937, Johnny partnered with his brother Robert, and performed what must've been one of the greatest sawing-in-half illusions ever put on. The way it worked was an illusionist onstage would "recruit" Robert from the audience for a hypnosis stunt. He would then have Robert stay onstage as the subject for a sawing-in-half illusion. Unbeknownst to the audience, Robert would be switched out for two people, Johnny and a dwarf who was completely hidden inside a pair of pants. Together, Johnny and the dwarf formed an identical substitute for Robert. The illusionist would saw between the two of them, and as soon as they were severed, Johnny would jump onto his hands and start frantically chasing his legs around the stage. Eventually stagehands would set Johnny back atop the dwarf and secretly switch the two back out for Robert. Of course, the whole stunt looked extremely realistic, and allegedly made audience members scream, run, and faint. In other words, it was a hit.

In 1988, Johnny was victimized once again when a gang of thieves assaulted him in a burglary of his home. The incident left him embittered and reclusive, and he remarked at the time, "If I want to see freaks, all I have to do is just look out the window." Johnny died of a heart attack in 1991.

The Very Sad Tale of "The Lobster Boy"

alobsterboy.jpg(Anomaly by reason of the reversal or wrong positioning of parts.) Grady Stiles, "The Lobster Boy", was born in 1937, the sixth in a long line of "lobster people". The family condition is ectrodactyly, in which the fingers and toes are fused together, producing hands and feet that resemble claws. Stiles was unable to walk, but he could easily crawl and was able to perform nearly every everyday task using his "claws". He married twice and had four children, but unfortunately he wasn't the best family-man. Aggravated by his condition, he became a violent alcoholic with a raging temper, and when his eldest daughter got engaged to a young man he disapproved of, Stiles shot and killed him. He was convicted of murder, but didn't receive any jail time because it was decided that no prison was equipped to handle his disability. As a result, his wife and kids were forced to endure his increasing abuse at home, as he frequently beat them with his "claws". But there was only so much they could withstand. On November 29, 1992, as Stiles sat watching TV in his trailer, he was shot four times in the head and killed. His wife had paid a hitman $1500 to commit the murder, and other family members were in on it as well. All parties involved were prosecuted and convicted. (His wife's trial was of particular note because it was the first time a defendant was permitted to assert a "battered woman's syndrome" defense in a premeditated murder case.) The long line of "lobster people" didn't end with Stiles's death, however. 3 of his living descendants possess "lobster claws" as well.

Want more stories like these? Be sure to check out Miss C's post.

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.