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The Quick 10: 10 People Who Laughed Themselves to Death

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I think most of us have laughed so hard we can't breathe at some point in our lives, but these people took the mirth a step further: they actually stopped breathing. At least, that's how their stories go. I'll tell you the stories and let you decide if you think cackles can lead to coffins.

1. When A Fish Called Wanda was released in Denmark in 1989, a man named Ole Bentzen was so tickled by the scene where Ken gets chips up his nose that he laughed himself into oblivion. You see, Bentzen apparently had a similar experience around his dinner table when he and his family put pieces of cauliflower up their noses. The scene made him think of this cauliflower incident, which made him laugh so hard that his heartbeat allegedly escalated to between 250-500 beats a minute, causing a fatal heart attack. I believe this is the scene that did it:

2. Getting your pet intentionally drunk is rather cruel, if you ask me, but legend has it that it's been a pastime since at least the third century B.C., when Greek philosopher Chrysippus supposedly gave his donkey wine. When the bombed burro tried to eat some figs, Chrysippus laughed himself six feet under.

3. I occasionally laugh in my sleep (which really creeps my husband out), so this one hits close to home. In 2003, a man named Damnoen Saen-um started chuckling in his sleep. His belly laughs wouldn't stop, despite his wife's best efforts, and he passed away from what is believed to be either heart failure or asphyxiation.

4. In 1410, Martin I of Aragon apparently died of a pretty crazy combination: indigestion and uncontrollable laughing. I'm not sure how you would combine the two "“ I guess maybe he found diarrhea quite humorous. Then again, I guess a lot of people do.

5. If you're not familiar with British T.V., you may not know The Goodies (I didn't). It was a sketch humor-type of show written by three British comedians; it ran in the '70s and early "˜80s. In 1975, a bricklayer named Alex Mitchell was enjoying a skit in which a Scotsman, clad in a kilt and all, was fighting off a deadly black pudding using his bagpipes. It struck him particularly funny and he laughed for 25 minutes straight. His heart finally gave out and he collapsed on the couch, according to his wife. She later wrote The Goodies to thank them for making her husband's final moments so merry.

6. It's pretty hard to get snarky commentary in while you're laughing yourself to death, but that's exactly what Thomas Urquhart (a Scottish aristocrat) did in 1660 when he heard that Charles II had taken the throne.

7. In 1782, a lady named Mrs. Fitzherbert went out with her friends to see an opera called The Beggar's Opera. An actor called Mr. Bannister made his entrance in drag as "Polly," sending the audience into fits of laughter. While everyone else was able to move on and enjoy the rest of the scene, though, Mrs. Fitzherbert just kept laughing"¦ and laughing"¦ and laughing. She finally removed herself from the theater before the end of the second act and the Gentleman's Magazine reported the following week that "Not being able to banish the figure from her memory, she was thrown into hysterics which continued without intermission until she expired on Friday morning."

8. Zeuxis, a Greek painter, had just completed a painting of an old woman that he apparently found quite humorous. He laughed so hard at the depiction that he couldn't catch his breath and ended up choking to death.

9. Dirty jokes can kill you, people. Pietro Aretino, an Italian author, suffocated from the hysterics that ensued after his sister told him a dirty joke. Wouldn't you like to know what it was?

10. I think you can tell this one is urban legend for sure, but I like it, so I'm including it. A city slicker from Boston came down to visit New Mexico and wanted to show the real cowboys down there that he was just like them. He outfitted himself in brand new boots, jeans with creases still in them and a big cliché hat that clearly had come fresh from the store. Pecos Bill took one look at the guy trying to pass himself off as a real bronco buster and promptly guffawed himself into the Great Beyond.

When was the laugh time you briefly thought you were going to laugh yourself to death? I can't even remember I had one of those crying, hard-to-breathe gut-busters. I think I'm about due!

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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