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5 More Crazy Ways People Amused Themselves Before Television

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Last month we discussed some of the strange ways people entertained themselves before television. Here are five more examples.

1. Mummy Unwrappings

Mummies have always been a source of fascination, especially to the English. One of Charles II’s mistresses, Nell Gwyn, supposedly owned a mummy way back in the 1660s. But it was 200 years later when the Victorians really went crazy for Egyptian mummies.

Egypt became a popular tourist destination and one of the must-have souvenirs was your very own mummy. No one is quite sure when it started, but at some point the owners of these mummies got curious about what exactly was inside the dusty wrappings. And if they were going to find out, why not invite all their friends over as well? And serve food and drinks! Eventually, the mummy unwrapping party was born. Some of these events were more scholarly than others, but there is evidence that dozens of parties had as their after dinner entertainment rather botched amateur unwrappings, after which the body and wrappings were just thrown away. Hundreds of mummies are estimated to have been lost in this manner.

Due to an export ban in the 1830s, mummies were much rarer in America than in Europe. Their unwrappings were huge events and advertised in the papers, although usually only men were allowed to attend, as the subject was “deemed inappropriate for women and children.” One famous unwrapping promised to include an Egyptian princess. The chance to see royalty, even long dead royalty, led to a crowd of 2,000 people, all of whom were shocked to eventually see the “princess’s” mummified penis.

2. Public Executions

Public executions were quite possibly the most attended events in history. Almost every country publicly killed convicts at some point, and everyone from little children to royalty showed up to watch.

The crowds that turned out, especially if the condemned was infamous by the time they were put to death, could be enormous. In 1746, the hanging of a Protestant pastor in Paris drew 40,000 people. The hanging of a man and woman in London, who had together killed a man, drew 50,000 people in 1849. The last hanging of a forger in England, in 1824, drew over 100,000 people, the largest crowd ever assembled for an execution in the UK. To put those numbers in perspective, the recent Super Bowl was held in a stadium that seats 70,000 people.

While these executions were ostensibly a lesson to the crowd ("don't do bad things"), in reality they were a grisly entertainment venue, illustrated by the fact that people often paid huge sums to be as close to the scaffold as possible. Ballads and short (heavily embellished) histories of the condemned and their crimes were sold to the crowds, along with food and drink from vendors. Every aspect of popular executions was covered in the papers; ladies in high society often discussed at length the pros and cons of the outfits condemned women chose to wear to their deaths.

The executions themselves could last hours from start to finish, with the condemned often driven in a cart through throngs of onlookers, as if he or she was on a parade float. Sometimes they stopped off at pubs along the way, where the giddy public got many a condemned man drunk before his ultimate demise.

3. Military Battles

What better way to enjoy a lovely day than with a picnic? And if your country happens to be in the middle of a war at that moment, and a battle is happening just down the street, well, you‘ve got yourself some free entertainment to go with your sandwiches.

When wars were fought in fields with weapons whose range was short, people regularly turned out to enjoy the spectacle. There are unsubstantiated accounts of this occurring during the Battle of Bosworth and various battles of the English Civil War. But perhaps the best war for picnicking was the American Civil War.

The Battle of Memphis was only 90 minutes long, but 10,000 people turned out on the cliffs overlooking the Mississippi to watch the ships fight in the river below. Even a Confederate loss didn’t dampen the festive mood. That was not the case during the First Battle of Bull Run. The people of Washington had expected an easy victory for their side and the fashionable elite of the city, including numerous congressmen, grabbed their picnic baskets and their children and settled down for an afternoon of bloody entertainment. When the Union army retreated in defeat, the panicked picnickers fled, blocking the streets back to Washington.

4. Insane Asylums

If you were bored in the 1800s, you could always pop down to the local insane asylum to liven up your day. Many of these institutions allowed the public to pay a small to fee to walk around gawking at the residents. Most patients lived in what was basically squalor, and the liberties afforded to these head-case tourists did not make things any better.

The most famous mental hospital of all time is probably St. Mary Bethlehem, aka Bethlam Hospital, aka Bedlam. The bastardized version of its name is where we get the word for absolute craziness. And in the 1800s it was very crazy at Bedlam. Visitors paid a penny to look at the patients and if they were being too calm and docile for the visitor’s liking, they were allowed to poke the patients with sticks. Many people smuggled in beer and fed it to the patients, just to see how the mentally ill acted when drunk.

In 1814 over 96,000 people visited just that one hospital. Of course, not everyone had a penny to spare for entertainment, and the hospital management knew everyone should be able to poke powerless and mentally unwell individuals with sticks, so every first Tuesday of the month admittance was free.

5. X-rays

Today X-rays may evoke bad feelings, associated as they are with hospitals and being unwell. But when they were first discovered in the 1890s, people went mad for this new technology. Here was a cheap, seemingly safe technique to actually look inside people! It was unlike anything that had ever been seen before. Even the name was sexy; “X-rays” sounded futuristic and mysterious.

Since the basic setup needed to make X-rays was both small and cheap, they started showing up in the oddest of places. Thousands of “Bone Portrait” studios sprang up, where photographers calling themselves “skiagraphers” specialized in taking X-ray photographs. These were especially popular with newly engaged couples. X-ray slot machines appeared in all major tourist destinations, where for the cost of a coin you could stare at the inside of your hand for a minute.


Perhaps the oddest use was in shoe shops. In 1927, a device called a “fluoroscope,” or the retrospectively creepier “pedoscope,” started showing up in all good department stores. It X-rayed your feet while you tried on different pairs of shoes. This allowed you to see how different fits affected the bone structure of your feet, ensuring you bought the perfect size.

X-ray equipment was so easily obtainable and popular that a trade even sprang up in lead-lined underwear so that one could save one’s modesty from all the creepy Peeping Toms that people assumed were now walking the streets.

A special thanks to Ben and Brian, whose comments on the original article helped build the sequel.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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