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7 Groundbreaking Specialty Acts

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Imagine that you had one very specific talent -something unusual, that people would normally never encounter in their everyday lives. Could you make a living doing it? Maybe, if you were willing to put the necessary time, effort, and imagination into your act. After all, if Joseph Pujol could make a living by farting, anything is possible! Here are a few entertainers who hustled an unusual idea or ability into a full-fledged career.

1. The Wingwalker

Soon after the airplane was invented, they became a vehicle for stunts and entertainment. Barnstormers put on shows in which they performed aerial stunts for crowds on the ground. One of the more impressive stunts was to get up from the pilot's seat and climb out on the wing of the plane. Ormer Locklear is the first known wingwalker. He was a pilot and mechanic for the the U.S. Army Air Service, and thought nothing of getting out and walking around the plane to check for problem while airborne. His commanding officer was concerned, but encouraged the stunt to boost morale in other pilots. When Locklear left the service in 1919, he began performing professionally with barnstorming shows and became "King of the Wing Walkers." His stunts included swinging from a bar underneath the plane, handstands, and even a walking transfer from one plane to another. His fame only lasted a year and a half, and he died when he crashed his plane while filming a stunt for the movie The Skywayman in 1920. Too many wingwalkers died performing; the stunt was outlawed for low altitudes in 1936. Image from the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

2. The Automaton

Radiana was a "robot" or "automaton" employed by the magician Professor John Popjie, who toured in the 1920s and '30s. Radiana could do some amazing things, like co-pilot a plane, drive a car, bake a cake, and even shave a brave member of the audience. However, Radiana was no robot. In a version of the Golem illusion, there was a real person inside the automaton. The magician's assistant was a small woman who used real hands to perform the feats while the audience was focused on Radiana's face or Professor Popjie.

3. The Whip Cracker

Indiana Jones is a fictional character, but Adam Winrich is the real thing. He holds seven Guinness World Records for whip-cracking stunts. But can you make a living cracking a whip? Yes, when you combine a series of amazing stunts with an interesting presentation on the history of the whip and throw in some humorous patter and audience participation. Winrich also sells an instructional DVD in case you want to learn this skill. But you have to give Indiana Jones a little of the credit: he was the inspiration behind Winrich's career.

4. The Flagpole Sitter

Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly was a Hollywood stuntman and self-described survivor of the Titanic (which is where his nickname came from). In 1924, Kelly climbed to the top of a flagpole in Los Angeles and stayed there for thirteen days. The story was circulated that the stunt was a dare from a friend, but it was actually a paid gig to promote a movie. He repeated the stunt at various places around America for sponsorship money for years, at one time earning $100 a day. A 1927 article describes how he did it. His greatest triumph came in 1930 when Kelly spent 49 days on a flagpole in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Kelly inspired others to try flagpole sitting, which became a fad for a short time. But it is one of those stunts that people are only impressed with only once, and Kelly's sponsors dropped off in the 1930s.

5. The Body Builder

For many years, crowds would gather to marvel at a man performing amazing feats of strength. The strongman exhibition was a type of traveling show popular before movies and television. One strongman, however, impressed people more for his looks than for his feats. Eugen Sandow, born in 1867 in Prussia, began performing strongman stunts at age 19. Before long, he switched gears to capitalize on his appearance as the first professional bodybuilder. With the encouragement of showman Flo Ziegfield, Sandow originated "muscle display performances," which became the classic poses still used in bodybuilding competitions today. Sandow toured Europe and appeared at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. He also wrote books on bodybuilding, invented home training equipment, opened a training spa, and organized a competition for bodybuilders. Sandow practically invented the sport, and will forever be known as "The Father of Bodybuilding." His performance still exists on video.

6. The Strongwoman

Muscle Beach in Santa Monica has been an athletic facility (and a showcase) for gymnasts, weightlifters, bodybuilders, and Hollywood stuntpersons since the 1930s. Workouts became performances, and Abbye Stockton stood out as one the rare female weightlifters and bodybuilders. She was known as Pudgy Stockton, a nickname from her teenage years. Stockton's boyfriend and eventual husband, Les Stockton, inspired her to workout with him at the beach. Pudgy got fit and impressed crowds with her strength and muscles, yet she kept a very feminine appearance, which made her a star. Pudgy and Les went on the road with a strongman show, but Pudgy's fame eclipsed Les's while he was serving in World War II. She opened America's first women's gym and promoted female fitness and bodybuilding. Stockton is known as "The First Lady of Iron."

7. Hélène Dutrieu

Helene Dutrieu (LOC)

One woman stands out as not only unusual for her time, but also because of her relentless overachievment. Hélène Dutrieu was born in 1877 in Belgium, and by age 20 she was a professional stunt cyclist and champion racer on both automobiles and motorcycles. But that wasn't enough- Dutrieu also learned to fly in 1908 and became one of the first female professional pilots, breaking records and performing in air shows. To put her accomplishment in perspective, she caused a bit of a scandal when it became known that she did not wear a corset while flying. But that still wasn't enough. During World War I, Dutrieu drove an ambulance and worked her way up to director of a military hospital. After the war, she went into journalism and worked to promote the role of women in aviation. Image from the Library of Congress Flickr stream.

See also: Odd Acts of the Vaudeville Era, Coney Island Freaks of Yesterday and Today, Getting Rich by Singing Badly, and Stars of the Wild West Show.

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.