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The Quick 10: 10 Facts About Harry Houdini

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Had Houdini not succumbed to the ill effects of well-placed sucker punch, he would have been 135 this month. OK, even Houdini couldn't have pulled that one off. Despite the fact that he passed away more than 80 years ago, he remains a fascinating and mysterious pop culture figure.

houdini1. Harry Houdini's real name was Ehrich Weiss. He likely took the first part of his stage name from his childhood nickname, "Ehrie," although some have speculated that his first name was a tribute to magician Harry Kellar. The last part, however, was definitely a tribute to French illusionist Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin.
2. He also named Buster Keaton, although inadvertently. Along with Houdini, Buster's dad, Joe, was the co-owner of a traveling show called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company. The story Buster tells is that one day, when he was only about six months old, he took a tumble down a flight of stairs while he was under his dad's watch, but come out of it completely unscathed. Houdini remarked, "That was a real buster!" "“ in those days, according to Keaton, "buster" meant a spill or a fall that had the potential to really hurt someone. Joe started calling him Buster and the nickname stuck. His real name was Joseph Frank Keaton, if you're curious.

3. He introduced his famous milk can trick in 1908. If you're not familiar, Houdini invented an over-sized milk can that would be filled with water. Houdini would be handcuffed and sealed inside, then left behind a curtain to make his daring escape. When this became too commonplace, he further encased the milk can in a wooden crate. Perhaps building on this stunt, Tetley's, a British beer, invited him to escape from a cask of their fine product. Houdini accepted and gave the stunt a go, but the task proved too difficult and he had to be rescued.

4. OK, despite what I said a minute ago, Houdini didn't really die from a sucker punch. But that's part of the legend. Houdini had long boasted of his physical capabilities and said that he could withstand any punch. After a performance in Montreal, a student from McGill University asked him if this was true. When Harry said it was, the student immediately punched him three times in the gut, not giving Harry the chance to tighten his abs, which was part of his secret. He ultimately died of a ruptured appendix which many people said was brought on by the punches, but that's not actually true. Houdini had been suffering from appendicitis for a few days but hadn't done anything about it, and in fact continued to travel and do shows for a few days after the punching incident. Finally, on October 24, 1926, he gave one last show and was immediately hospitalized afterward, but he had let it go too long: on October 31, 1926, he died of peritonitis from his ruptured appendix.

poster5. He's buried at Machpelah Cemetary in Queens and has the symbol of the Society of American Magicians engraved on his tombstone (he was president of it when he died). Members of the Society gather every year to hold a ceremony there. Sadly, his beloved wife, Bess, is buried 10 miles away in Westchester; she wasn't allowed to be buried with him because she wasn't Jewish. Maybe he escaped his home six feet under and managed to be with her in Westchester.
6. Speaking of Bess, she held a séance every year for ten years on the anniversary of his death to see if he would get in touch. Before he died, they made a pact that if there was a way to do it, he would, and they agreed upon a phrase that he would tell her so she would know it was him and not one of the many fakes that he loved to debunk when he was still alive. When he failed to contact her on the 10th anniversary, she gave up the ghost. The Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pa. (how long before that shows up on an episode of The Office?) still holds the séances every year. So far, no one has gotten Harry to communicate. The secret code, by the way, was "Rosabelle- answer- tell- pray, answer- look- tell- answer, answer- tell." Rosabelle was the name of a song she sang in her vaudeville act when the two of them met, and the other words corresponded to letters of the alphabet. Combined, they spelled out "Believe."

7. Houdini was an avid aviator and even believed that one day, when all of his magic was exposed and he was no longer a big deal in that field, people would remember him for his contributions to the world of aviation.

8. Houdini would surely be upset that a movie about his life depicted him dying as a result of one of his stunts "“ the Chinese Water Torture Cell. Houdini's feet would be locked in stocks and then he was lowered upside-down into a water-filled tank. Tony Curtis played Houdini and Janet Leigh played his wife. In reality, Houdini repeatedly performed the stunt without a hitch "“ and he was the only one who could legally perform it because he copyrighted the Chinese Water Torture Cell in a pretty ingenious way. You couldn't copyright magic tricks, so he first performed this escape as part of a one-act play called "Houdini Upside Down," because then he could copyright the play and the effect. He actively sued anyone who tried to imitate the stunt.

9. Although the Chinese Water Torture Cell didn't do him in, one of his performances nearly did. In 1917, he was buried in a pit with no casket "“ just dirt shoveled right on top of him. While trying to dig his way out, he started to panic and use up his precious air. He tried to call for help, but have you ever tried to call for help with a mouthful of dirt? Me neither. But I bet it's pretty difficult. Finally, his hand broke the surface and he was pulled to safety, where he promptly passed out. He later wrote that "The weight of the earth is killing."

10. The suspended straitjacket escape was one of his most famous stunts. He would be strapped into a medical straitjacket "“ no tricks there "“ and then suspended by his ankles very high in the air. He usually used a crane or a tall building. Once hoisted in the air, he escaped. And you can see him do it:

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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