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The Strange Deaths of 20 Interesting People

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wikimedia commons / istock

Despite our best efforts, Death, in all its myriad and weird forms, is constantly lurking around the corner. But who knew a toothpick could be so dangerous? Or that one's trademark scarf, draped so dramatically around your neck, could be conspiring to kill you?

Here, adding to the list of things one should worry about—cellphones causing cancer, the probability of a car accident, the potential for being struck by lightning whilst enjoying a game of pick-up soccer on an unfortunately situated field -- is a long list of the strange deaths of interesting people. Take heed and keep an eye on those toothpicks.

1. KING ADOLF FREDERICK OF SWEDEN

The king ate himself to death in 1771: His last meal included lobster, caviar, cabbage, smoked herring, and Champagne, followed up by 14 servings of his favorite dessert, semla in hot milk.

2. ALLAN PINKERTON

The founder of the Pinkerton detective agency, died from an infection incurred after he bit his tongue.

3. JACK DANIEL

The purveyor of fine whiskey, died from an infection sustained after kicking his safe and busting his toe.

4. ISADORA DUNCAN

The early 20th century modern dancer, was killed by her trademark scarf while riding in a convertible car. The long scarf blew back and wrapped around a tire axel, breaking Duncan's neck.

5. VIC MORROW 

The lead actor from the television series Combat!, was decapitated by a helicopter blade during a stunt for The Twilight Zone: The Movie gone way bad. Two Vietnamese children also died in the accident, prompting the film industry to institute stricter child labor laws.

6. TYCHO BRAHE

The 16th century Danish nobleman and astronomer, supposedly died of a bladder infection after holding it way, way too long during a banquet. Good story, but not true: A 1996 report showed that though Brahe did become ill after the banquet with symptoms similar to a bladder infection, he actually died of mercury poisoning. Brahe and his assistants frequently used mercury in alchemical experiments, however, how the mercury got into his system in such a concentrated dose remains a mystery.

7. TENNESSEE WILLIAMS 

The longtime alcoholic and author of some of the most enduringly bleak plays of the 20th century, choked on an eyedropper bottle cap in 1983.

8. SHERWOOD ANDERSON

The author of Winesburg, Ohio, died of peritonitis, an infection of the lining of his stomach, suffered after he swallowed part of a toothpick.

9. NORMAN "CHUBBY" CHANEY

Chaney, one of the original Little Rascals, died as a result of a glandular disorder at the age of 21. Evidently, what made him a popular character on the show "“ his weight, which at one point topped 300 pounds on his 4-foot 7-inch frame "“ was actually contributing to his death.

10. ATTILA THE HUN

The invader died of a nosebleed on his wedding night. He passed out drunk and drowned in his own blood.

11. SIR FRANCIS BACON

The scientist died after trying to preserve a chicken in snow; the famous scientist contracted pneumonia after the successful experiment and died a few months later.

12. AESCHYLUS

The Greek playwright, died after an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head. The tortoise reportedly lived.

13. CHRYSIPPUS

The Greek stoic philosopher, is believed to have died of laughter after getting his donkey drunk and watching it attempt to eat figs.

14. ROMAN EMPEROR TITUS

A bug allegedly flew into into the ruler's nose and, for the next seven years, happily ate at his brain. According to the Babylonian Talmud, it was the size of a bird when he died.

15. KEITH RELF

The lead singer of the Yardbirds was electrocuted by his own electric guitar.

16. EMPEROR CLAUDIUS OF ROME 

According to Karl Shaw's book 5 People Who Died During Sex and 100 Other Terribly Tasteless Lists, Emperor Claudius of Rome choked on a feather he'd been using to induce vomiting during a banquet in 54 AD. Other historians say he was poisoned by his wife, Agrippina.

17. PLAYWRIGHT CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE

who was perhaps better known in his day than even contemporary Shakespeare, died in 1593 after a fatal argument in a tavern over a bill, he was stabbed in the eye.

18. KING HENRY I

The king died in 1135 of food poisoning after overdosing on lampreys, a parasitic eel-like marine animal popular in British cuisine during the Middle Ages. Because he died while in France, his remains were sewn into the hide of a bull and shipped back to England for burial.

19. BOBBY LEACH

He cheated death when he made the historic (and historically stupid) trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel, the second person to do so, but he wasn't so lucky on dry land. The stuntman slipped on an orange peel and fractured his leg, which then became infected. Despite the amputation of the gangrenous limb, Leach still died only two months later.

20. DRACO

The Greek lawmaker whose stringent legal code gave rise to the word "draconian," died somewhere in the 7th century BCE, supposedly after particularly masterful speech: He suffocated under the mounds of hats and cloaks thrown upon him by admiring Greeks, as a show of appreciation.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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