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6 Magicians Who Died While Performing The Bullet Catch

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Is it possible for a human being to catch a speeding bullet in his mouth? For centuries, magicians have been convincing audiences that it is. Whether the bullet catch is an illusion or the result of lightning-fast reflexes, it definitely comes with a fatal risk. Since its introduction in the late 1500s, many magicians have perished on stage doing the trick, as detailed in Ben Robinson's 1986 book Twelve Have Died: Bullet Catching—The Story & Secrets.

The presentation of the catch usually goes like this. A bullet is offered to an audience member to examine, then marked for identification and loaded into a gun. The gun is fired by an assistant or a volunteer, directly at the magician's mouth. The magician catches it with his teeth, or in a cup that's been placed inside his mouth. He then presents the exploded shell of the marked bullet to the audience for verification. In modern versions of the trick (see Penn & Teller or David Blaine), there is often a plate of glass between the gun and the magician, to confirm that live ammunition is being fired. With that setup, let's meet six magicians who became unfortunate targets in the bullet catch.

1. Madame DeLinsky (died 1820)

The wife/assistant of a Polish magician had a routine where she faced a firing squad of six soldiers.

Back in the early 19th century, rifles were loaded by biting open a cartridge, pouring the gunpowder in the barrel, then jamming the rest of the cartridge down the barrel with a ramrod. In the DeLinsky version of the trick, the soldiers were shills, paid and secretly instructed to bite away the whole bullet and load in a blank. But in the fatal performance, in Germany before a royal court, one of the riflemen apparently got nervous being on stage, and reverted to his usual way of loading the gun. When the bullet hit Madame DeLinsky in the abdomen, several audience members fainted. The Madame died two days later. Adding to the tragedy, she was pregnant and lost her unborn child. Her husband was eventually driven mad from the shock of the accident.

2. Arnold Buck (died 1840)

As long as there have been magicians, there have been skeptical audience members who hope to screw up their tricks. Unfortunately, in Buck's case, he picked one such troublemaker as a volunteer to load a bullet into a gun. Along with a bullet, which was a blank, the volunteer dropped some nails into the barrel, then fired. The sharp-end buckshot was fatal for Buck.

3. Professor Adam Epstein (died 1869)

Important safety tip for aspiring conjurers: magic wands should only be used for making rabbits disappear. The Professor reportedly used his wand to ram the ammunition into the barrel of a rifle before the bullet catch. But the wand broke, and he was killed when one of its flying shards pierced his forehead.

4. Chung Ling Soo (died 1918)

His real name, William Ellsworth Campbell Robinson, lacked the requisite hocus pocus. So when this American took the stage, he performed under names such as Achmed ben Ali and Nana Sahib. Inspired by famous Chinese conjurer Ching Ling Foo, Robinson finally chose a variation for his own professional alias. In his most notorious illusion, "Condemned To Death By The Boxers" (as in Boxer Rebellion), two assistants fired guns at him, and he'd catch both bullets. Each gun had two barrels, one with a real bullet, the other with a blank. On the fateful night, a buildup of gunpowder accidentally sent one of the real bullets straight into Chung's chest. He said, "Oh my god, something's happened. Lower the curtain." He died the next day. At first, foul play was suspected, as there had been a feud between Chung and Ching, the magician from whom he stole his name. But after Chung's widow explained the mechanics of the trick at an inquest, the death was ruled accidental.

5. The Black Wizard of the West (died 1922)

Clearly, the Black Wizard, real name H.T. Sartell, was a greenhorn. The story goes that he bought some wax bullets and attempted the trick on stage for the first time without any rehearsal. And he enlisted his wife as an assistant without realizing that she was harboring some serious ill will towards him. She switched out the wax bullets for real ones and gunned her husband down in front of a horrified audience.

6. Ralf Bialla (died 1975)

The bullet was only an accessory in the death of this eccentric German magician, who billed himself as “The Living Target.” Bialla had performed the trick over 3,000 times, a feat he attributed not only to his skill but to a secret weapon: a set of steel teeth he had beneath his dentures. In Bialla’s version of the trick, the bullet was fired through three panes of glass then into his mouth via a funnel he made with his hands, clad in steel gloves. But reportedly, one of the long-term effects of catching all those bullets was that he had circulation problems that caused him to black out. After recovering from an injury in 1975, he went for a stroll in the mountains. While admiring scenery over a cliff, he blacked out and fell to his death.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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