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The Time Andy Kaufman Wrestled a Bunch of Women

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On October 20, 1979, Andy Kaufman made his ninth appearance on Saturday Night Live. Previous audiences had laughed at his oddball routines that tread the line between comedy and performance art. Once, he led a spirited sing-a-long to “Old MacDonald Had A Farm.” Another time, he came out in a tux and read The Great Gatsby aloud in a phony English accent. His best-known spots featured the nervous Foreign Man, who did bad celebrity imitations, said, “Tank you veddy much,” then finished with a dead-on Elvis Presley tribute. Of course, Foreign Man was also the inspiration for Kaufman’s character Latka on the sitcom Taxi.

But on this night, Kaufman wanted to do something riskier.

He posed a challenge, offering $500 to any woman who could beat him in a three-minute wrestling match. Dressed in full-length white thermal underwear, baggy black swim trunks, black socks and black shoes, Kaufman strutted around, claiming he was the World Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion. He goaded the females in the audience, poking fun at women’s lib, and saying that women were “meant to be in the kitchen” while “washing the potatoes, scrubbing the carrots, raising the babies.”

Kaufman got his challenger, who he proceeded to pin to the mat. It was a weird spectacle, unlike anything ever seen on network TV before.

What the audience didn’t know was that Kaufman had been wrestling women across the country for months, as part of his touring act. His friend and co-conspirator Bob Zmuda, dressed as a referee, would set up the challenge. Any woman that could pin Andy Kaufman walked away with the cash. Fifteen or twenty ladies would volunteer. Then, to prove that they weren’t using a shill, Kaufman would let the audience vote for the best candidate.

“I wanted to recapture the old days of the carnivals,” Kaufman said. “Wrestlers used to go from town to town with carnivals, and offer $500 to any man who could last in the ring with them for three minutes. So I figured if I could offer a prize and make it like a contest, it could be very exciting. But I couldn’t very well challenge men in the audience, because I’d get beaten right away. Most men are bigger than me and stronger than me. So I figured if I challenge women, they’d have a good chance to beat me.”

It should be remembered that in the 1970s, wrestling was not the polished, theatrical television event that it later became, but a low-budget, sleazy affair. And that’s what Kaufman loved about it. As a kid, his hero had been wrestler “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. “I remember the frenzy he brought to the crowd,” Kaufman said. “He was incredible. So what I wanted to do was recreate that in my act. I would have to say all these nasty things about women, just to get them to come up on stage, and to define for the audience that they should be booing me.”

They booed all right. And they sent hate mail. Despite Kaufman’s over-the-top parody of a trash-talking, chauvinistic jerk, a lot of people believed the whole thing was real. Just like they believed wrestling was real.

http://youtu.be/RY3oRVzjSIg

For Kaufman, there was a fringe benefit to the wrestling charade. He was painfully shy, and always had trouble meeting women. But rolling around on a mat for a few minutes with the opposite sex proved to be a very effective way to get dates. According to Bob Zmuda, Kaufman ended up sleeping with some of his wrestling opponents.

From 1979-1983, Kaufman wrestled over 400 women (his most publicized match was against Playboy playmate Susan Smith in 1981). He retired undefeated. The next phase of his wrestling career was his feud with pro wrestler Jerry Lawler, as documented in the classic documentary I’m From Hollywood. In 1982, in a live call-in poll, Kaufman was banned from Saturday Night Live for not being funny enough (the stunt was his idea).

Kaufman died of cancer in 1984. He was 35.

In 2009, an entertaining book called Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts! collected the best of the letters and photos that he received during his wrestling days.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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