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8 Odd Acts of the Vaudeville Era

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Before movies could talk, there were endless opportunities for those who had talent to make a living performing in front of live audiences. Singers, dancers, actors, and comedians were the backbone of the traveling show. There were also side show exhibits with human oddities and specialty acts such as the circus, the wild west show, and the medicine show. But in those days, just like today, audiences wanted something new and different. And there were many who stepped onto the stage to provide something different.

1. Painless Parker

Edgar Parker opened his dental practice in 1892 and found business was not that great. So he took his practice on the road and became Painless Parker, “the P.T. Barnum of dentistry.” If the idea of dentistry as entertainment sounds odd, remember that folks were eager for odd entertainnment. With the help of a cocaine solution he called "hydrocaine", Parker pulled tooth after tooth in town after town for only 50 cents each. "Painless Parker's Dental Circus" built his business to the point that when he died in 1952, he owned 30 dental clinics and employed 75 dentists. When Parker, who legally changed his named to Painless, performed his public extractions, he wore a necklace made of teeth he had pulled. He eventually collected a large bucket of human teeth, which is on display at Temple University's dental museum.

2. The Boxing Gordon Sisters

One gimmick for drawing in audiences was to put females in a role normally reserved for men. The Gordon Sisters traveled the east coast in a boxing exhibition show beginning in the late 1890s. Bessie Gordon, who was sometimes billed as Belle, gave a punching bag demonstration and then boxed one of her sisters Minnie, Alice, or Freda (who could have been only two or even one woman). The sisters did not come across as particularly talented fighters, rather the novelty was that women fought at all -and it didn't hurt that they wore short skirts in the ring. They also wore boxing gloves, while real (male) fighters at the time did not.

3. Lillian La France

Born in 1894, Lillian LaFrance embraced the freedom and thrills of motorcycle culture and made it into her profession. She began driving on the Motordrome circuit in 1924. LaFrance performed stunts including a turn at the Wall of Death which thrilled audiences across the country in the 1920s and '30s.

4. Ethel Purtle

How do you top a woman doing death-defying stunts on a motorcycle? Take that act and put a wild animal in it! Ethel Purtle performed on the Wall of Death with a sidecar containing her lion named King. There were several acts that combined lion tamers and stunt riders on the Motordrome circuit.

5. Gus Visser

There's not a lot of biographical information about Gus Visser outside of the fact that he was born in 1894 and performed a vaudeville act in which he sang with a duck. The duck had a limited part, but the gimmick was enough to build an act around. Gus achieved immortality when he was recorded in a 1925 experimental sound film singing "Ma, He's Making Eyes At Me", which became possibly the world's first music video. One has to wonder if Visser had any inkling that this experiment on film would eventually lead to the decline of vaudeville and the death of one-trick novelty acts such as his.

6. Cannonball Richards

Frank "Cannonball" Richards seemingly built his act around self-punishment. Strongmen were a staple of the traveling circus, but Richards combined his strength with the thrill of risking injury as he stood still and was shot in the belly with a cannonball. He discovered his unusually strong stomach as a young man and invited his friends to punch him in the gut. Richards went on to allow people to jump on his stomach to show its strength. He even took a punch from Jack Dempsey! His cannonball routine was limited to two performances a day because, despite his showmanship, the stunt was painful.

7. Le Petomane

Joseph Pujol made a living by farting, or rather, by drawing in and expelling air from his anus. He first shared his talent while serving in the French army and began performing professionally in 1887. Pujol, who went by the name Le Petomane on stage, performed fully clothed for most audiences and drew gasps and laughter from the crowd with the sounds he made, from impressions to melodies, including tricks like blowing out candles. He headlined at the Moulin Rouge in Paris for two years, then traveled throughout Europe. Pujol retired during World War I and returned to his former career as a baker in Marseilles. The only available film of his performance is, sadly, silent.

8. Helen Keller

You know the story of how Helen Keller was both blind and deaf and learned to communicate with her teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy. You might not know about their career as vaudeville performers. Keller was offered a place on stage as a teenager, but turned down the opportunity. By 1920, she and Macy were in need of money, and toured the US and Canada on the Orpheum circuit for four years. Keller was already a celebrity as an author and lecturer, but the stage act was reminiscent of a freak show, as Keller demonstrated her finger spelling and speaking voice. She was urged to keep her political views off the stage for fear of alienating the audience.

See also: Coney Island Freaks of Yesterday and Today and Stars of the Wild West Show.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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