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The Quick 10: 10 Famous Circus Performers

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I'm sure you have all noticed by now that I have a love of the strange and the bizarre. So when I came across this fascinating post about strongmen throughout history at Listverse, I was immediately inspired for today's Quick 10. I know strongmen aren't always circus sideshow attractions, but they are definitely unusual people"¦ so that's where my brain went. And by the way, if you have something to get done this afternoon, don't click on the Listverse link. It's a highly addictive site that will suck you in for hours.

Have a good weekend!

1. Jane Barnell, AKA Lady Olga Roderick, was in sideshows from a very young age - her own mother sold her to the Great Orient Family Circus when she was just a girl. Over the course of her career, she toured with several different circuses and eventually ended up with Ringling. Her great appeal? She had a 13-inch long beard. She was in biffenTod Browning's movie Freaks from 1932 (which I still have yet to see, although it's on my list), but wasn't happy with the way sideshow performers were portrayed in the movie. She died in 1951.


2. If you're a fan of Charles Dickens, the name Sarah Biffen might sound familiar to you. She was a woman who was born with no arms. She had legs, but they didn't function. However, she had no problems writing, painting or doing needlework because she learned to use her mouth. Charles Dickens was so impressed that he wrote her into both Martin Chuzzlewit and Nicholas Nickelby. Sarah toured with a man named Mr. Dukes, who took her to various fairs and circus, charging people to watch her draw and sew. She even sold her work for three guineas each.

bibrowski3. Stephan Bibrowski, AKA Lionel the Lion-Faced Man, had hypertrichosis (we think "“ it wasn't diagnosable at the time). You can probably guess by his clever sideshow name that he was covered in long hair "“ the only parts that weren't were his palms and the soles of his feet. He traveled with Barnum & Bailey's during the first part of the 20th century, but by 1920 he settled down in New York City so he could exhibit himself at Coney Island. By 1930, he was out of the sideshow life altogether.


4. Myrtle Corbin was a dipygus "“ she had two pelvises side-by-side, which gave her four legs. The inner two of them were too small and too weak to do much with, though. She toured with sideshows for a while, but ended up marrying a doctor in 1887 (she was 19). They had four kids "“ supposedly, three from one pelvis and one from the other.

5. Minnie Woolsey, AKA Koo Koo, the Bird Girl. She had Virchow-Seckel syndrome, which resulted in a very small head and a narrow, bird-like face, including a long nose and very large eyes. She was also bald, lacking any teeth, and had very little to no sight. She was also in the movie Freaks, where she wore a bird outfit and danced during one of the scenes.

6. William Hutchings was known as the Boy Lightning Calculator (marketed by P.T. Barnum, of course). He could perform complex equations and add, subtract and multiply extremely large numbers without the aid of so much as a pencil. When his sideshow days were over, he went on to write a book about how you can do the same thing yourself: The Lightning Calculator: A Guide to Rapid and Accurate Calculation by Professor Hutchings.

marriage7. Of course, General Tom Thumb is one of the most (if not the most) well-known circus performers of all time. His real name was Charles Stratton, and he only grew to a maximum height of about 40 inches tall. He started touring with Barnum in 1843, when he was only five. He married a girl who was about his height, and together they were incredibly popular "“ the Brangelina of the 1860s.


8. Lavinia Warren was Tom's wife. She and her sister both had proportionate dwarfism (meaning all of their features were proportionately small). She worked as a teacher for a while, but when she heard of Tom Thumb's success, she assumed there was no reason she couldn't do the same. And she did. In fact, even though Commodore Nutt, a fellow dwarf, was pursuing her, she was in love with Tom Thumb and ended up marring him in 1863. Their wedding was a huge event "“ P.T. Barnum charged people $75 to attend the reception.


9. Frank Richards, better known as Cannonball. His whole act consisted of taking painful objects to the gut, including a sledgehammer, two-by-fours, a punch from heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey, and, yes, cannonballs. You guys might know him from the Van Halen III album cover. You can see him doing his thing below:

10. Anna Haining Bates was, like a lot of these performers, discovered by P.T. Barnum. She was already four and a half feet tall by the time she was four, and about 6'1" at the age of 10. Her adult height was right around 7'5". She married Martin Van Buren Bates, another super tall person (Guinness lists him at 7'9".)

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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