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The Quick 10: 10 People Pronounced Dead a Bit Prematurely

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Pope Benedict XV died on January 22, 1922, which isn't all that notable by itself "“ after all, he was 67 and had been suffering from a pretty bad case of pneumonia all month. What is notable is that he had been declared dead several days before he actually died thanks to a foible by a New York newspaper. Benedict is just one of a select group of folks who have been declared dead before their time "“ here is his story and nine others.

BENEDICT1. Pope Benedict XV was, as mentioned, quite ill with pneumonia and the whole world was on a rather morbid death watch, much like we were a few years ago when Pope John Paul II got sick. A "New York newspaper," which is always unnamed when the story is told, jumped the gun a little and declared that Benedict had died in large, boldface type. The problem? He was still kicking. The next day, this "New York newspaper" allegedly declared "Pope Has Remarkable Recovery," without acknowledging their previous error. Since the name of the newspaper can't be verified, I think this one is a job for Snopes. I just might have to submit it!

2. In 1973, British magazine Melody Maker published a satirical article that announced Alice Cooper's death due to a faulty guillotine he was using in his stage act. It was supposed to be funny, but Cooper's fans weren't quite amused. Apparently they missed sarcastic phrases such as, "Apart from the incident, the show went well and as normal," and "The body of Ms. Cooper, who was 46, is currently on show at the Charles Addams funeral parlour, Hollywood. The head, it is understood, will be the subject of a competition in one of Britian's pop magazines." After the article caused so much outrage, Alice released a statement, saying, "I'm alive and drunk as usual." You can read the original "obituary" here.

3. Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Mary, were involved in not one, but two plane crashes during a 1954 African safari. But newspapers around the world were a little too eager to report that they had both died from those crashes. Hemingway suffered a ruptured kidney, a sprained arm and leg and temporary loss of hearing and eyesight, but his vision had improved enough to allow him to read his own premature obituary while sitting in a café in Venice just a few days later.

4. Most of us have heard the famous Mark Twain quip, "The report of my death is an exaggeration," but here's the story behind the quote. A journalist was incorrectly informed that Twain was knocking on death's door in 1897, but when he showed up to inquire about the writer's health, he was informed that it was, in fact, Twain's cousin who was dying. The reporter had gotten his Clemens boys confused. Samuel Clemens lasted another 13 years.

5. Sharon Osbourne's battle with cancer was pretty highly publicized in 2002 and 2003, so I guess decided to prepare for the worst by getting her death announcement ready. This is pretty common practice, actually, but it becomes problematic when the announcement is published and the person in question is actually still alive and doing quite well. ABC News retracted their error ASAP and claimed it was due to a technical glitch.

6. Imagine reading your obituary and finding it less than glowing. That's what happened to Alfred Nobel in 1888. When Nobel's brother Ludvig died, a French newspaper erroneously reported that it was the dynamite inventor who died, almost gleefully declaring, "The merchant of death is dead!" They also stated in the article that Nobel had become rich by "finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before." Nobel, understandably, was not too happy with the way the media had portrayed him and set out to do something to improve his image "“ thus, the Nobel Prize was born.

7. Rudyard Kipling's premature death announcement is along the lines of Pope Benedict XV "“ the magazine involved is never named, so feel free to remain a bit skeptical. The quip is too good not to mention though: when Kipling's obituary was published in a magazine while he was still very much alive, he made sure to drop them a note, saying, "I've just read that I am dead. Don't forget to delete me from your list of subscribers." Zing!

cheney8. I don't care what way you swing politically; there probably aren't too many people who think of former Vice President Dick Cheney lovingly. That's why it was doubly strange when published his obituary on April 16, 2003, stating that he was "The UK's favorite grandmother." Clearly they had used the Queen Mother's obituary as a template for Cheney and several others who accidentally had their obits published the same day. It was an interesting insight into who CNN thought was due to kick the bucket soon, though "“ other people included in the incident were Nelson Mandela, Gerald Ford, Pope John Paul II, Fidel Castro, Bob Hope and Ronald Reagan. Their guesses weren't too awful "“ by the end of 2006, only three of those seven were still alive.

9. Just after one of his plays had debuted to rave reviews, writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge was found dead, having hanged himself from a tree in London's Hyde Park. The problem? It wasn't Coleridge. I guess detective work has come a long way since 1816, because the body was identified by using the initials stitched in the back of the body's shirt "“ "S.T. Coleridge." The real Coleridge overheard people discussing his death and asked to see the newspaper they were looking at, which contained his obituary. One of the people remarked that it was strange that Coleridge would kill himself after such a success, but then again, he had always been known as a little bit strange. Coleridge allegedly replied, "Indeed, sir, it is a most extraordinary thing that he should have hanged himself, be the subject of an inquest, and yet that he should at this moment be speaking to you." He suspected the shirt had been stolen from him.

10. Joe DiMaggio wasn't very happy when he saw that NBC was broadcasting the news of his death in January 1999. He was watching Gunfight at OK Corral with friend Morris Engelberg and happened to switch to NBC just in time to see the error. "Joe, we must be in heaven together," Engelberg told the Yankee Clipper. DiMaggio released a statement saying that not only was alive, he was not in "hopeless condition," even though he had lung cancer. Unfortunately, DiMaggio died less than two months later.

I know Paul McCartney is another good one "“ if you're interested, I touched on it a little bit in my Sgt. Pepper post last year. And as several readers have pointed out, Abe Vigoda has been pronounced dead plenty of times. Do you remember any others were announced dead a little (or a lot) prematurely?

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