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Stars of the Wild West Show

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In the latter part of the 19th century, before television, radio, or even movies with sound, traveling exhibitions were the biggest form of entertainment most people encountered. Oh yes, the circus! At the same time, newspapers and novels told of the adventures Americans experienced settling the western half of the country: exploring, fighting the natives, hunting strange animals, and building communities. The wild west show merged the entertainment of the circus with the adventure of the new west and brought it to crowds of the eastern US and beyond. The stars of the wild west shows were as famous as world leaders and military heroes -or even more so!

Buffalo Bill

200_Buffalo-BillWilliam Frederick Cody worked as a Pony Express rider, trapper, prospector, buffalo hunter, and military scout before he became the premiere showman of the American West. He earned the nickname Buffalo Bill in his early twenties by outshooting a rival hunter. In 1872, author Ned Buntline persuaded Cody to portray himself in Buntline's play The Scouts of the Plains. Cody caught the show business bug and returned to the theater every season while still working as a scout for the US military. In 1883, he organized a traveling show called Buffalo Bill's Wild West, an outdoor extravaganza which featured historical reenactments, rodeo events, shooting exhibitions, and generally any impressive act that could conceivably depict life in the wild west. Cody's exhibition traveled for thirty years, including a total of ten years in Europe, and was seen by hundreds of thousands of people. Cody's idea of a traveling western circus was recreated by many other show business entrepreneurs, including quite a few of his star acts. In 1893 the name of the show was expanded to Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World when a parade of horseback riders was added. In 1909 he teamed with Pawnee Bill and his Asian acts to form the show Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Pawnee Bill's Far East. See Cody in a surviving film clip.

Dr. W.F. Carver

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Dr. William Frank Carver was trained as a dentist but made his name as a buffalo hunter and champion sharpshooter. The New York Times called him "as fine a specimen of fully-developed manhood as ever walked on Manhattan Island." A short-range marksman, his act consisted of shooting glass balls or wooden blocks his assistant would throw into the air. If that weren't impressive enough, audience members would throw their pencils into the air and watch Carver destroy those as well. He toured on his own and also with Bill Cody's show. Carver won numerous marksmanship prizes in addition to his show business income. Carver invented the horse diving act in which a horse would dive into a pool of water from heights of up to 60 feet. He was inspired when he rode a horse across a bridge that collapsed and the horse executed a graceful dive into a raging river, or at least that was the story he told. Carver's son, daughter, and daughter-in-law carried on the diving horse business in Atlantic City after Carver died in 1927.

Pawnee Bill

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William Gordon Lillie worked as a teacher, interpreter, and advocate for the Pawnee people who were relocated to Oklahoma. His lifelong relationship with the tribe earned him the name Pawnee Bill. He was hired to coordinate the Pawnee actors in Buffalo Bill's first tour. Five years later he went on the road with his own show called Pawnee Bill's Wild West. As time went by, he added Japanese acrobats and Arabian jugglers to the show. In 1908 he again joined Bill Cody, this time as an equal, as they formed "Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Pawnee Bill's Great Far East." Lillie's wife May (pictured) was a rider and sharpshooter in his show while still a teenager.

Buckskin Joe

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Edward Jonathan Hoyt went by the nickname E.J. most of his life, and on stage was known as Buckskin Joe. Born in Canada and raised to use a bow and arrow and animal trap, Hoyt was employed as an acrobat and aerialist with the J.T. Johnson Wagon Circus before the Civil War. He played sixteen different musical instruments  and became an accomplished bandleader. Hoyt fought for the Union in the Civil War and stayed in the military afterward during the Indian Wars. Still, he performed with various shows and learned how to walk a tightrope. Hoyt put together a band that played cow horns, which was recruited for the Pawnee Bill show. Although he wore long hair most of his life already, in 1880 Hoyt vowed to let his hair grow until he was worth $50,000. A few years later he admitted he had enough money and cut fifteen inches off! Hoyt also owned a grocery, served as a US Marshall, mined silver, prospected for gold, and opened his own show called Buckskin Joe's Wild West Show.

Annie Oakley

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Phoebe Ann Moses (or Mosey) later became known as Annie Oakley, the greatest shooter of any wild west show. Her father died when she was six years old, and Oakley learned to hunt and trap to help the family. She gained a reputation as a crack shot, and when she defeated professional sharpshooter Frank Butler in an arranged match, he was so impressed he began to court her. They married in 1882. Butler trained Oakley in riding and developed a show around her skills. Oakley and Butler joined Buffalo Bill's show in 1885, where Oakley became the biggest star outside of Bill Cody himself. She headlined the show for 17 years, then turned to acting when a play was written especially for her. She taught thousands of women to shoot, and even volunteered to put together a regiment of female sharpshooters for the Spanish-American War, but president McKinley did not accept the offer. Oakley continued to stage shooting demonstrations for the rest of her life. You can see Oakley in action in an 1894 Edison film.

Bee Ho Gray

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Emberry Cannon Gray was part Chickasaw and grew up friends with a Comanche family, whose chief gave him the nickname Bee Ho. By the time he was a teenager, Gray was an expert with whips, ropes, knives, and horses. At 19, he joined Colonel Cummins Indian Congress to perform at the World's Fair in St. Louis. He worked with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West for many years and was with California Frank's All-Star Wild West and the Irwin Brothers Cheyenne Frontier Days Wild West Show. Gray won two world championship roping competitions and held one of the championship titles for several years. When the wild west shows faded, Gray took his act to vaudeville, radio, and Hollywood. His vaudeville act with his wife Ada featured trick roping, banjo music, humor, and his pet coyote. Bee Ho Gray also appeared in two credited films plus several uncredited roles.

Mexican Joe

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José Barrera was only 15 years old when Pawnee Bill hired him as a trick roper. He was an expert rider and participated in a "horse ballet" in which a group of riders danced to a live Mexican band. Barrera married a fellow performer, trick rider Effie Cole. He performed with Buffalo Bill's show and the Miller Brother's show in addition to Pawnee Bill's productions. When he and Ellie retired from show business, Barrera became foreman at Pawnee Bill's ranch in Oklahoma.

Sitting Bull

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Tatanka-Iyotanka, also known as Sitting Bull, was a Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux warrior and later chief who led the defeat of General George Custer. He was a guerilla fighter against the US Army in Red Cloud's War and fought in the Great Sioux War which included the battle at Little Big Horn. After years of exile in Canada after Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull surrendered and was confined to a reservation. He joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West as a star attraction in 1885. He was not required to perform, as his fame was enough to draw crowds. Sitting Bull made an appearance riding around the arena once for each show, then charged spectators to sign autographs. His show business career only lasted four months, but exposure to audiences only increased his fame as a warrior and freedom fighter. Sitting Bull returned to the reservation as a leader and advocate for his people. In 1890, authorities decided to preemptively arrest Sitting Bull because they suspected he would the join the Ghost Dance movement of Sioux who refused to live on the reservations. When they came to arrest him, Sitting Bull was killed along with seven of his followers and eight Lakota police officers.

Montana Frank

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Frank McCray was a messenger and government scout in Montana before joining Buffalo Bill's Wild West as a trick roper. He performed with the show for six years, then took his act to several other traveling companies and vaudeville shows as well as staging shows on his own.

Will Rogers

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You know Will Rogers as a movie star and humorist, but he began his show business career as a trick roper with Texas Jack's Wild West Circus, after honing his skills as a cowboy in the American west, Argentina, and South Africa. He later joined the Wirth Brothers Circus in Australia. Rogers returned to the US and was working for another circus when he was recruited by William Hammerstein to star in a vaudeville show. He added more comedy to his act, which led to a run with the Ziegfield Follies, and then to movies as well as a career as a traveling humorist and political pundit. He had perfected his show business persona to the point that he no longer needed to do rope tricks.

Iron Tail

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Wasee Maza was a Minneconjou Lakota who participated in the Battle of Little Bighorn as a teenager. His name translated to English as Iron Tail. After defeating Custer, he followed Sitting Bull into Canada and then back to South Dakota. Iron Tail joined the Ghost Dancers and was injured at the Wounded Knee Massacre. His parents, siblings, wife, and infant son all died. Not long afterward, Iron Tail joined Buffalo Bill's show. He traveled with the show for 15 years, all the while advocating for Native American rights. Iron Tail was one of three men who modeled for the Indian Head nickel released in 1913. The showman adopted the name Dewey Beard when he converted to Catholicism. Beard appeared in several western movies, mostly uncredited. When Dewey Beard/Iron Tail died in 1955, he was memorialized as the last survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn.

These are just a few of the many stars who entertained crowds in the traveling western exhibitions. Just like traditional circuses, the wild west show suffered from the rise of movie theaters. Some of the performers retired, some went into ranching, and others opened stationary shows and museums (a few combined all those activities). The younger performers took their skills to the movies, spawning an entire genre of film we still enjoy. Yes, without Buffalo Bill, we most likely wouldn't have the western today.

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technology
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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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

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]

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