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The Quick 10: 10 Celebrities Almost Felled By Food

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A really good opener for this Q10 would be to tell you about this time I was choking and had my life saved by some wonderful person who knew how to do the Heimlich. Unfortunately, I have no such story.

The celebrities below do, though. Can you imagine how embarrassing the obituary would be? "Carrie Fisher, famous for her portrayal as the iconic Princess Leia in the Star Wars movies, passed away today after choking on a Brussels sprout that she was forced to eat because she was so stoned."

Needless to say, thank God these people were saved. Here are their stories, as researched by the always-wonderful Meg McGinn.

carrie1. Carrie Fisher. John Belushi set up and accompanied Carrie and Dan Aykroyd on a blind date, but passed out sometime during the evening. Carrie was apparently incredibly stoned, so stoned that Aykroyd forced her to eat, hoping it would help her come down a bit. Instead of Doritos, though, Carrie ate Brussels sprouts. And choked on one. Aykroyd gave her the Heimlich and then promptly proposed marriage.

2. If a choking incident could possibly be sexy, this was probably it (although I doubt it was): it involved a near-nude Halle Berry and Pierce Brosnan. When they were filming a sex scene in Die Another Day, Pierce made Halle laugh and she started choking on some fruit (a fig, according to IMDB). Pierce has said that he was thinking about giving her the Heimlich, but was a little concerned about wrapping his arms around her while they were both practically naked. Luckily, he didn't have to make up his mind about the appropriateness of the situation "“ she coughed up the fig and they went on filming.

3. Who hasn't tried to swallow a pill dry (or even just not swallowed it right) and gotten that big lump stick in your throat? Cher is proof that mundane things like that happen to celebrities, too. She was backstage at the rehearsal of a Broadway play when she starting choking on a vitamin. She apparently tried to dislodge it with some bread, but when that didn't work, Robert Altman gave her the Heimlich.

liz4. Elizabeth Taylor. When Liz was married to Senator John W. Warner, the two of them were campaigning in Virginia when she got a chicken bone stuck in her throat.

She was rushed to the Lonesome Pine Hospital in Big Stone Gap, Va., where it was safely removed. She later donated part of her pay as a guest star on General Hospital to the real hospital that she credited with saving her life.

5. Tom Brokaw, to the rescue! When news anchor John Chancellor sent a chunk of Gouda down the wrong pipe in 1979, it was lucky that Tom was there. The Heimlich Manuever was only a few years old at the time, and the new technique had recently been demoed on his show. "[Chancellor] turned very red and then very gray," Brokaw said. So he performed the Heimlich and popped out the cheese, and Chancellor went on the air a few hours later as planned.

6. Ed Koch, the former mayor of NYC, was eating at a restaurant in Chinatown in 1981 when he choked on"¦ something. "I choked on what we said was watercress," he said six years after the incident. "There was a debate as to whether it was watercress or spare ribs. A vote was taken and the vote was watercress." Apparently, his staff was concerned that spare ribs would be offensive to some of his constituents.

dickie v7. Could famous coach and broadcaster Dick Vitale have been felled by a mere piece of unmasticated melon? Yup, he could have, if off-duty fireman John King hadn't been there. He was at Tropicana Field before a Devil Rays game in 2002, having dinner at their restaurant. "I was choking and turning colors," Dickie V. said, when King came over "and gave me a bear hug. Beautiful guy, too."

8. He's not the only sports broadcaster to be threatened by food that took a wrong turn. In the 90s, former USC QB Pat Haden was on broadcasting duty at a Rams/Falcons game when he was viciously attacked by some broccoli. His new on-air partner, Verne Lundquist, performed the Heimlich on him. It didn't look like anyone else was going to: "I'm not sure what I would have done if I hadn't known anybody in the restaurant. Nobody was running to help." Maybe the other restaurant patrons were UCLA fans.

barkin9. In 2006, Page Six reported that Ellen Barkin was eating dinner at the Sunset Tower Hotel's Tower Bar when she jumped up and screamed, "I'm going to die!" CAA agent Kevin Huvane gave her the Heimlich (what did people do before the Heimlich was invented?!) and popped out a piece of shrimp. Meanwhile, Sylvester Stallone just watched from a couple of tables away. Guess he only does the action-hero thing if he's getting paid to do it, huh?

10. Long before John Hinckley, Jr., tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan, a peanut tried to do him in. He was on an airplane headed around the campaign trail and casually tossed a peanut and caught it in his mouth "“ unfortunately, just as the plane was taking off. The force of the takeoff pushed his head against the seat and I guess lodged the peanut in a bad spot. Aide Mike Deaver rushed to help the future President, performed the Heimlich Maneuver that Reagan had taught him, and "the wayward nut popped quietly off the bulkhead." In typical Reagan fashion, he had a quip at the ready: "I'm sure glad I taught you that darn thing."

Obviously, I've left off President Bush choking and passing out because of a pretzel, but I think we all know about that one.

Have you narrowly avoided death by food? Tell us about it in the comments.

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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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