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The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

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Julia Suits has assembled a book filled with ads for real prank machines used in fraternal lodges in the early part of the 20th century, complete with an introduction by David Copperfield. This volume is extremely appropriate for readers of mental_floss, as it's full of trivia on weird inventions, the history of pranks, and a very special form of Americana. The book is bizarre and hilariously perverse, packed with clippings from catalogs sent to the high muckety-mucks at the Modern Woodmen of America, Masons Shriners*, Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and all manner of secret societies. And what did these catalogs contain? Crazy, dangerous, occasionally xenophobic pranks!! What could possibly go wrong? (Check the chapter "See You in Court!" for more on what actually went wrong.)

These catalogs were where a secret society leader turned to buy the machines used to haze AHEM, initiate new members of his order. It's an utterly fascinating glimpse into the minds of these men (and they were men, these being fraternal orders), and hints at a world that's vividly weird (lots of gags involving goats) and dangerous (many of the inventions involve gunpowder and/or electrical current). Here's a snippet from page 120, under the heading "Bang! Crash! Splat! The Mechanicals":

In the nineteenth century, DeMoulin catalog no. 11 offered a revolver for $1.50. A gun was a casual item back then; accidental shootings, especially among small children, were as common as the stubbing of a toe. A Kansas City newspaper bemoaned, "Another babe killed while playing. Guns are dangerous pieces of furniture and must never be allowed into the hands of children."

Citizens could shoot guns within the city limits, but they were encouraged to be careful and not fire when people were asleep...that was considered rude. Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill's Wild West show were at their peak of popularity, perhaps inspiring shooting matches, which were a ubiquitous sight at picnics, dances, and fairs.

Gunpowder was also a household item and dynamite sticks were literally a dime a dozen at the general store. How could a guy blast a stump or take out a pond full of fish without it?

And what was a town square without a cannon? A cannon without a sense of humor? To wit:

A cannon firing a salute, discharged early, sending the steel rammer hissing up Main Street, tearing two big holes through the hotel.

-The Oakland Independent,
Burt County, Nebraska, 1899

And here's a creepy Halloweeny video demonstrating "The Pledge Altar," a DeMoulin device circa 1914. The initiate kneels in front the altar, and then....

The book's subtitle is The Curious World of the DeMoulin Brothers and Their Fraternal Lodge Prank Machines--from Human Centipedes and Revolving Goats to Electric Carpets and Smoking Camels. It focuses on the DeMoulin Brothers & Co. (as well as a few competing companies); the DeMoulin Brothers produced the most elaborate hazing devices on the market, and their catalogs are works of art (indeed, the illustrations alone are worth the price of admission -- see below for some samples). There's an extensive section of the book devoted to "Factory Goats"; one example being The Ferris Wheel Goat: "This is one of the best Goats on the market, and is made so simple, that it is impossible for it to ever get out of order. It has a Goat body fastened securely in the center of two wheels. The harness is put on a candidate who is strapped on the Goat and wheel so he cannot fall. There are many tricks about this Goat. ..." Many tricks, indeed. I won't spoil them, but let's just say many of the tricks involve hazing some dude while he's riding the mecha-goat (ideally blindfolded).

Through her research for this book, Suits started Tweets of Old (which I starting digging back in 2009) -- a site and Twitter/Facebook/RSS feed of historical amusements found in newspapers. A sample:

There was lots of beer flowing at the Republican meeting, thus it was no use trying to keep away the Democrats. PA1878

-A news brevity from The Altoona Morning Tribune, Pennsylvania, 1878

An Interview With Julia Suits

I posed some questions to Suits, to learn a little more about this curious catalog.

Higgins: How do you go about researching a book like this?

Suits: First get ahold of original raw material and add more: DeMoulin catalogs, actual devices, accounts from folks with first-hand experience. Then sit at your computer and google away.

Higgins: Where do you get access to the catalogs?

Suits: The fabulous online book finder, Via Libri, led me to a mint-condition 1914 catalog; John Goldsmith, the DeMoulin Museum curator lent me a dozen to scan. eBay led me to another, though they are rarely listed there. Scans were made carefully at 1200 dpi. I made some, while the publisher scanned several catalogs.

Higgins: How do you organize all the information relevant to the book?

Suits: A fabulous software program called Writers Blocks and of course, a looong table, three or four large empty walls, lots of copied pages, colored magic markers, and two rolls of Scotch tape.

Higgins: How'd you manage to get David Copperfield to write the intro?

Suits: Once I found his contact person, I was able to discuss the project with him. He is an avid collector of odd and wonderful Americana related to illusion: automata, mechanical fool-the-eye stuff. He might well have the largest collection of DeMoulin prank items. Bruce Webb Gallery, in Waxahatchie, Texas and the DeMoulin Museum in Greenville, Illinois have splendid collections. DeMoulin Museum has documents, photos, and many other things not found anywhere else.

Higgins: What are the collectors of these catalogs like? Are they all men?

Suits: From my limited experience, I'd say most and perhaps all are men. Though I have a very modest collection myself, I am not a serious collector.

Higgins: Do the collectors feel a proprietary interest in how you depict the catalogs and the fraternal organizations involved?

Suits: Intriguing question! I have no idea. The book might spur more interest in these items, increasing their value, adding heat to eBay bidding wars.

Higgins: How did Tweets of Old come about?

Suits: While exploring newspaper archives for fraternal lodge news relevant to the book, I found lots of unrelated, odd bits that were too good to leave behind. Twitter's format was an easy and convenient place to stock pile and back up these bits. Eventually, I decided to put them out there.

Higgins: Are there plans for more stuff along the lines of Tweets of Old, like a book?

Suits: A book proposal is in the works.

Higgins: When did you first decide that the DeMoulin Catalogs were a great notion for a book?

Suits: Sitting in my studio, poring over a 100-year old catalog. "What treasure!" I thought, "This has to be shared!"

Higgins: There's a rich history of men hazing each other, and this book clearly covers a major part of it. Have you looked into any other organizations that have hazing rituals (like college fraternities)?

Suits: A bit. I contacted Norm Pollard, a nationally recognized hazing expert at Alfred University, who helped me understand contemporary hazing and the initiations depicted in the DeMoulin catalogs. Another scholar, Darius Rejali, an expert in torture, steered me to some fascinating information, including the use of an electric carpet (similar to DeMoulin's electric carpet, or made by the company, we might never know) by Seattle police department in the early 1900's in the interrogation of prisoners.

Higgins: Have you personally experienced any of these devices?

Suits: Yes. The spankers (which don't hurt) and I've have seen others demonstrated: The Pledge Altar, the Lung Tester, etc.

Higgins: This is a book about fraternal organizations: groups of men gathering behind closed doors. As a woman, do you feel that you're any better- or worse-equipped to talk about these organizations, simply because you're, by definition, an outsider?

Suits: Gender has no role here, but being an outsider automatically makes you free to disclose the information. A fraternal lodge man might be reluctant to share the information. Google search does not withhold info from me because I'm female.

Higgins: Do you own any of these devices, or catalogs?

Suits: I own a few masks, two spankers, a goat, some robes, a skeleton, et al.

Higgins: Are you doing any author events? If so, where can we follow you to find out more?

Suits: A few radio interviews are planned, and two book signing events in the St. Louis area on Nov 20, 21.

You can follow Suits (who is also a cartoonist for The New Yorker) at juliasuits.net.

Some Images from the Book

The book is full of images from the DeMoulin Brothers catalogs, along with commentary and historical context. I felt this review wouldn't be complete without some of the original catalog images. Have a peek:

The Hornet's Nest

Electric Branding Iron

If images aren't your thing, you'll likely appreciate the ultra-spooky video Fun in the Lodge Room: Human Centipede ca. 1928 demonstrating one of these devices. Oy.

To Buy the Book

Head on over to the extraordinary website of Julia Suits for more information. If you're ready to pre-order a copy (it comes out tomorrow), try Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, or your local bookseller.

* Update, 31 Oct 2011, 2pm PST: Suits emailed me to note that the Masons did not engage in this sort of silliness. But the Shriners did, hence the update near the top of this post.

Blogger disclosure: I wasn't specially compensated to do this review; I'm a huge fan of Tweets of Old and heard that Suits had a book coming out -- and I couldn't pass up a chance to check it out!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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