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9 Insane Torture Techniques

So you think your mother-in-law is torturous? Or your boss with the lame sense of humor? Get a load of the following nine insane torture techniques used in different parts of the world to kill, dismember, or otherwise cause inordinate amounts of pain. We promise: you'll never use the word torturous the same way again.

1. Chinese Bamboo Torture

As you probably know, bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on earth. Although there's no real proof that it was used, Chinese Bamboo Torture took advantage of bamboo's propensity to grow quickly. How quickly? Well, some varieties in parts of China grow as much as three feet in a single day. In addition to ancient China, many believe that the Japanese used Chinese Bamboo Torture on POWs during WWII.

How it worked:

1. Tips of living bamboo were cut sharp to create a spear.
2. The victim was suspended horizontally above such a patch of bamboo.
3. The bamboo pierced through the victim's skin and continued to grow through his abdomen, ultimately causing one of the most painful deaths ever inflicted.

Watch the Mythbusters prove that Chinese Bamboo Torture is possible.

2. The Iron Maiden

Like bamboo torture, the Iron Maiden is sometimes thought to be fictional. But this torture technique, using an upright sarcophagus with spikes on the inner surfaces, definitely existed. Invented in the late 18th century, this is the device that the metal band Iron Maiden took their name from.

How it worked:

1. The victim was forced into the spiked sarcophagus and shut in.
2. The short spikes welded into the chamber weren't long enough to kill anyone, but did plenty of damage and inflicted enough pain that an interrogator on the outside was usually able to get a confession.
3. If not, nails and other sharp objects like knives, were inserted into the chamber, inflicting more pain.
4. Generally, between the spikes and the knives, victims would bleed to death after said confession, or sometimes before.
5. Some Iron Maidens also had spikes in place to puncture the eyes.

3. Scaphism (aka "The Boats")

The word scaphism comes from the Greek word skaphe, meaning scooped or hollowed. An ancient Persian method of torture, wherein the victim was eaten alive by bugs, scaphism was also known as "the boats" for reasons you'll understand momentarily.

How it worked:

1. A captive was stripped naked and chained to a pair of back-to-back narrow rowboats or hollowed out tree trunks.
2. The captive was then left to float on a stagnant pond.
3. He was then force fed copious amounts of milk and honey.
4. The victim would develop serious diarrhea, which would in turn attract insects.
5. The insects would then feed on the victim's exposed flesh.

4. The Choke Pear

The Choke Pear was popular during the Middle Ages. Crimes worthy of choke pear torture included blasphemy, lying, having a miscarriage, and homosexual intercourse. Depending on the crime, the torturer would insert the pear into a different part of the criminal's body. Women usually got it in the vagina, homosexuals in the anus, and liars and blasphemers in the mouth.

How it worked:

1. An instrument consisting of sharpened leaf-like segments was inserted into the victim's orifice.
2. The torturer turned a screw at the top, causing the leafs to open, slowly.
3. As the leafs separated, severe internal mutilation occurred.

5. The Brazen Bull

Designed in ancient Greece, the Brazen Bull was a hollowed brass bull statue designed and invented by Perillos of Athens, commissioned, if you will, by Phalaris, the tyrant of Acragas in Sicily.

How it worked:

1. Victims were locked into the hollowed brass bull.
2. A fire was lit under the bull.
3. The victim was roasted alive.
4. The design of the bull's head was such that the victim's screams were made to sound like the bull roaring.
5. The scorched remains were often made into bracelets and sold at market.

6. Rat Torture

One of the most widely recognized forms of bizarre torture, thanks in part to the movie 2 Fast 2 Furious, rat torture is thought to be an ancient Chinese technique. Below, however, we'll describe a particular form of rat torture developed by Diederik Sonoy, a leader during the Dutch revolt of the 16th century.

How it worked:

1. A prisoner was chained down naked on a table.
2. Large, heavy bowls with disease-infected rats were placed open-side down on the prisoner.
3. Hot charcoal was piled on top of the bowls, agitating the rats.
4. In an attempt to escape from the hot bowls, the rats would gnaw their way through the victim's flesh.

7. Judas Cradle

The Spanish Inquisition was known for its many torture devices, and the Judas Cradle was one of the most painful. Also known as the Judas chair, victims usually died of infection, as the seat was never cleaned between uses.

How it worked:

1. The victim was placed on top of a pyramid-shaped seat, with both legs tied together.
2. The chair's point was usually inserted into the anus or vagina, stretching the orifice.
3. The victim was slowly lowered via ropes.
4. The torture might last a few hours or, sometimes, a few days.

8. Crushing by Elephant

For thousands of years, crushing by elephant was a commonly practiced form of torture in Southeast Asia and India. Given the animals' sheer weight, intelligence and susceptibility to training (as we know from the circus), elephants were an obvious choice.

How it worked:

1. Victims were tied down on the floor.
2. Elephants were led into the room to stomp on the victim's head.
3. Often they prolonged the agony by first dismembering victims.

9. The Rack

What short list of torture techniques would be complete without the infamous rack? Consisting of a long wooden board and a couple of rollers, the rack was first used on early Christian martyrs like Vincent of Saragossa, who was tortured to death around the year 300. And, as we've seen all too often in bad Hollywood films, as interrogation assistance, simply forcing a prisoner to watch someone else suffering on the rack was generally enough to get him talking. Anyone who survived the rack was generally unable to use his muscles for the remainder of his life. Good times!

How it worked:

1. The victim was chained to rollers at both ends of the device's wooden frame and then pulled in opposite directions.
2. By ratcheting up the tension on the rollers, the victim's limbs were ripped out of their sockets.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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