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The Quick 10: 10 Famous Uses of the Ouija Board

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The Ouija Board was one of my favorite slumber party games when I was a kid. I know – some people would say that it’s certainly not a game. Look what happened to Regan in The Exorcist, after all. I haven’t used one in years, but maybe I should – several famous writers made very good livings off of their work with a Ouija Board. Here are their stories and a few others.

1. Sylvia Plath wrote Dialogue over a Ouija Board in 1957. It is, as you might suspect, her results from a session with the board. She also wrote a poem about the phenomenon.
2. After Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 crashed into the Florida Everglades in 1972, John G. Fuller wrote a book about it called The Ghosts of Flight 401. Employees of Eastern Air Lines reported seeing the ghos
ts of pilot and co-pilot Bob Loft and Don Repo around the company, and the ghosts of the 10 deceased flight attendants kept showing up on another plane. The theory was that parts from Flight 401 were salvaged and used in the only other Lockheed L-1011 the company owned. Anyway, Fuller used the Ouija Board and a medium to contact the spirits to write his book.

3. Even Pulitzer Prize winners have consulted the Ouija. Poet James Merrill extensively used the board to write his work, including 1982’s The Changing Light at Sandover, which was a 560-page epic consisting of messages from fellow poet W.H. Auden, friends Maya Deren and Maria Mitsotaki, and no less than the Archangel Michael.

4. Alice Cooper once claimed that he got his stage name from using the Ouija Board. Vincent Furnier consulted the board, which told him he was the reincarnation of a 17th-century witch named Alice Cooper. He adopted the name as his own, and there you have it. True or not, it’s a good tale.

5. Perhaps one of the most famous uses of the Ouija Board happened in 1917, when a Missouri author named Emily Grant Hutchings published a book titled Jap Herron, which she claimed was dictated to her via the Ouija Board by her acquaintance Mark Twain. Skeptics said the book was such crap there was no way Twain would have written such a thing, dead or not.

6. It’s no surprise that Hutchings was good friends with Pearl Curran, who became famous for her Ouija-dictated books. Curran supposedly co-wrote with a Puritan woman named Patience Worth, a prolific lady who wrote multiple novels and many, many poems before Pearl Curran died in 1937. Patience, of course, was kind enough to let Pearl know that her demise was imminent.

7. William Butler Yeats didn’t use a board, exactly, but took advantage of his wife’s channeling abilities (she was a medium) to write A Vision through her automatic writing. Same concept as the Ouija, but it involves a spirit actually coming through the medium’s hand and scribbling down notes instead of spelling out cryptic messages on a lettered board.
8. Bill Wilson may have turned from one addition to another when he eschewed alcohol but picked up a pretty bad Ouija habit. The co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous had a “spook room” set up in his house where he would contact spirits that helped him with his alcoholism. One of the spirits, he claimed, was a 15th century monk named Boniface. He even acknowledged in his autobiography that he used the Ouija Board to create the program’s famous 12 steps.

9. You probably wouldn’t catch most politicians admitting that they used a Ouija Board, but that’s what former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi did when he was asked, under oath, how he knew where previous Prime Minister Aldo Moro was being held by the Red Brigades. And the spirit who told him this information? Giorgio La Pira, the former mayor of Florence who had died the previous year. Most people believe that it was simply Prodi trying to avoid revealing his real source.

10. The band The Mars Volta says they wrote an entire album around the Ouija Board. A session with the board gave them a story that they ended up using in the whole creative process, but when strange things started happening – a flooded studio, one of their engineers had a nervous breakdown, and their lead singer injured his foot – they burned the Ouija Board and buried it.

Have any of you had any creepy Ouija Board experiences? Do you buy into it?

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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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Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]