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The Quick 10: 10 Niagara Falls Daredevils

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On June 30, 1859, a French acrobat added something new to the already-dangerous trend of performing crazy stunts at Niagara Falls: he crossed its gorge on a tightrope. We'll get to him in a minute, but first, a few other people decided to seek their fame by risking their lives at the Falls (and one who didn't mean to).


sampatch1. Sam Patch was kind of the first Evel Knieval. In early October of 1829, Sam, AKA "The Yankee Leapster," jumped from a 125-foot ladder that was extended out over the river. He was supposed to jump at noon, but just before he was scheduled to jump, the wind snapped a piece of the ladder off. It was rescheduled for 4 p.m., and that time, it went off without a hitch. He jumped and the crowd waited with bated breath, staring at the spot where he was supposed to appear - but he never did. Finally, he crawled to shore in an unexpected spot and his short-lived daredevil career was born. Sam did the same jump again several days later - to a bigger audience, of course - and then went on to jump into the Genesee River. The first time worked, but the second time was his undoing. Just a month after his Niagara Falls jump, Sam Patch leapt into the Genesee and never came out. His frozen body was discovered in the thawing river in the early spring of 1830. The epitaph on his gravestone reads, "Sam Patch - Such is Fame."

tayloe2. Annie Edson Taylor was the first person to ever go over the Falls in a barrel and survive. In 1901, the 60-something-year-old schoolteacher commissioned a custom-made barrel made of oak and iron and lined with a mattress. To test it out, Taylor sent a cat over the Falls five days prior to her jump - and it made the trip intact. Annie made the same trip several days later, and she made the trip intact as well, although she did suffer a gash on her head. She made it quite clear that the trip was anything but fun and that she never intended to do it again: "I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces, than make another trip over the Fall."

blondin3. Blondin (Jean Francois Gravelet) was a French tight-rope walker who shimmied his way across the Falls in 1859. At 160 feet above the water (some reports say 190 feet), Gravelet walked 1100 feet from one side to the other. It took him 17 and a half minutes. And he wasn't content to do it just once - he did it blindfold, he did it on stilts, he did it carrying his manager on his back, he did it at night with locomotive lights shining the way and he did it carrying a table and chairs. The plan was to sit down and enjoy a piece of cake and some champagne, but when he lost the chair, he sat on the cable instead and had his snack before finishing the journey. The American people loved him and he was known as the hero of the falls, but there was at least one person who was unimpressed: Mark Twain. He referred to Blondin as "That adventurous ass." He died of complications relating to diabetes at the age of 72.

maria4. Maria Spelterini proved that women can do anything men can do by repeating Blondin's tightrope stunts in 1876. To date, she is the only woman to ever do so. Like Blondin, she crossed several times after the first time, with each trip getting more and more complicated. The second time she crossed with a peach basket strapped to each foot, the third time she was blindfolded, and the fourth time she crossed with her ankles and wrists handcuffed.

5. Captain Matthew Webb was the first person to ever successfully swim the English Channel without any help from artificial means. You would think that would mean he would have somewhat of an advantage when it came to swimming through the Whirlpool Rapids below Niagara Falls, but sadly, that wasn't the case. Reports say it looked like he survived the first half of the swim but may have met his match when he tried to cross into the entrance to the whirlpool.

karel6. Karel Soucek, a stuntman from Canada, went over the Falls on July 3, 1984. He went the Annie Taylor route, designing a custom barrel that was bright red, insulated with foam and emblazoned with the words "The Last of Niagara's Daredevils" and "It's not whether you fail or triumph, it's that you keep your word... and at least try!" He tried... and he succeeded. But he didn't have permission and was fined $500. Soucek decided that it was the beginning of a career and managed to get a stunt scheduled at the Houston Astrodome where he would be dropped from a barrel from the top of the building - 180 feet in the air - into a tank of water. But the stunt went wrong - the barrel started flipping around in midair and the landing was compromised. Instead of falling cleanly into the water, the barrel hit the side of the tank, severely injuring Soucek. He died the next day.

7. Steve Trotter followed in Soucek's footsteps the next year. He, also illegally, went over the Falls in two pickle barrels attached end-to-end. They were insulated with the same foam used to pack nuclear warheads and Trotter was equipped with a lifejacket, flashlights, oxygen tanks and a two-way radio. Unlike Annie Taylor, Trotter loved his ride, telling people that it was "like the best roller coaster ride you ever had as a 10-year-old." Being a 10-year-old probably wasn't too distant of a memory for him - at 22, he was the youngest person to ever go over the Falls in a barrel. He went over again 10 years later, this time joined by fellow daredevil Lori Martin. Trotter didn't get permission for that stunt either, nor his "Tarzan" stunts off of the Golden Gate and Sunshine Skyway Bridges.

The first Tarzan stunt occurred the same year as his first Niagara stunt - he jumped off of the Golden Gate Bridge while attached to a cable with a wooden disk at the end of it. He stood on the wooden disk and swung back and forth before he was caught and arrested. The Sunshine Skyway incident happened in 1997 and didn't go as smoothly: Trotter and five others attempted the same stunt but didn't test the weight; the cable snapped and at least two of the other jumpers were severely injured.

8. and 9. Peter DeBernardi and Jeffrey James Petkovich were the first people to do a two-person "jump." They went over the Falls in a barrel equipped with rudders to help them steer through the rapids and a video camera to record the entire event. DeBernardi apparently wanted to discourage people from getting addicted to drugs like he was and especially wanted to set a good example for his then-two-year-old son. How going over Niagara Falls in a barrel was going to do that, I'm not sure... anyway, both of the men in the barrel survived. No word on if his son ever became a drug addict or not.

roger10. Roger Woodward was a seven-year-old boy when he went over the Falls - but it wasn't on purpose. In July 1960, Roger was doing the tourist thing with his sister when the private boat they were in capsized, dumping both of them and the driver out into the river. Roger went over the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side and, miraculously, came out totally unharmed. One of the Maid of the Mist tourist boats spotted Roger's bright orange life jacket and pulled him aboard. His sister was rescued before she went over the Falls and ended up with just a cut hand. The driver of the boat, however, died.

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