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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
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]