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12 People Who Made a Living Eating Inedible Things

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Remember that kid in elementary school who would eat anything for a quarter? It turns out he wasn’t just trying to make up for a lack of personality to make friends or get attention. He was preparing himself for a career in show business. Thanks to the rise of the vaudeville and the circus sideshow, performers throughout history and even the modern stage have been practicing the strange art of digestion and regurgitation. They take seemingly inedible objects and choke them down before your very eyes. Here’s a look at some of the world’s greatest “human ostriches.”

1. Todd Robbins

This renowned illusionist, trickster and sideshow aficionado has carved an interesting career out of shocking his audiences. He’s perhaps best known for a trick that few people know how to do because it is very dangerous: lightbulb eating.

He learned the trick from an old Coney Island sideshow performer when he was a teenager and since then he’s eaten over 4000 lightbulbs. The only major injury he suffered while performing the trick is a broken tooth that exposed a raw nerve. The trick became the centerpiece of a very successful, very bloody and very scary off-Broadway spook show called Play Dead that he co-wrote with Teller of Penn & Teller.

2. Michel Lotito

The French entertainer known as “Monsieur Mangetout” (“Mr. Eat-All”) set world records by eating seemingly inedible metal objects from nails to bicycles. His career, however, started not because of his strange talent. It came from a strange medical condition.

Lotito suffered from Pica, a medical disorder that drives people to eat inedible things. It started after he accidentally swallowed a piece of glass in a swimming pool when he was 16. Since then, he ate bits of metal and glass to impress his friends and eventually turned the weird trick into a career leading to his most impressive meal: a Cessna 150 light aircraft. It took two years to eat the whole thing.

3. Louis Cole

The rise of the Internet and YouTube gave all sorts of shameless people the chance to humiliate themselves for fun and profit. This southwest London resident is no exception.

Cole’s “Food for Louis” channel presents him with an ultimate series of challenges to eat all sorts of unusual, disgusting, and dead animals without any preparation. They go straight from his plate directly into his mouth, sometimes while they are still living. He started taking dares from his friends to choke down things like spiders, rotten apples, and wasps, and eventually started making a living by creating his own popular YouTube channel to take on bigger challenges from the rest of the world. Some of his more unusual dining moments include roadkill straight from the road, blended mice, raw pig’s eyeballs, and 21 live locusts.

4. Stevie Starr

The almost forgotten art of regurgitation, the act of swallowing something and bringing it up again on command, has undergone a resurgence thanks to this legendary Scottish showman.

Starr claims he learned his art at a young age by swallowing his pocket change to hide it from bullies. He has since graduated to bigger and tougher objects such as lightbulbs, billiard balls, and Rubik’s Cubes. He not only brings up the objects intact but also claims he can manipulate them with the muscles in his stomach or even bring them back in a different order. His signature trick involves taking a ring from a member of the audience and swallowing it with a closed lock and a key. When he brings the objects back up, the ring has been placed in the lock while all three are in his stomach. Some have speculated his technique involves sleight of hand but doctors and magicians have been unable to figure out the gimmick—assuming he uses one.

5. Henry Harrison

One of the first and best sideshow eaters may have technically been a freak—but the ladies didn't think so. The Syracuse, New York native had a storied career throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s as the “human ostrich.” He would eat just about anything that audiences could throw at him, including pocket-knives, pins, nails, screws, and glass, with seemingly no discomfort whatsoever. He learned the skill at age 6 after accidentally swallowing one of his mother’s pins. When his mother learned he had swallowed one, she took him to a surgeon, who found 40 more pins in his stomach. The only serious malady occurred when he tried to swallow an entire package of tacks and the packaging became lodged in his intestine.

He was also known for being something of a player. Those who saw him described him as quite handsome and he was often seen leaving his New York shows with more than one girl on his arm.

6. John Fasel

This Williamsburg, New York tailor found an interesting way to bring in some extra money, but his sideshow career didn’t last long.

Fasel also became a “human ostrich” in 1900 by swallowing metal objects whole, including nails, pocketwatches, keys, and knives. Unfortunately, his time in the spotlight was short lived because his digestive system wasn’t able to fully digest the bits of metal he left in his stomach. His talent almost killed him in 1901—doctors had to cut him open to remove the metal objects he swallowed on stage, which included three watch chains, five hairpins, 12 horseshoe nails, three keys, a ring, and 128 pins. Somehow, he recovered, but returned to his old trick four years later after swearing off the stunt by challenging another “human ostrich” to an eat-off at a Brooklyn gala.

7. Dagmar Rothman

Photo Courtesy of The Human Marvels

The man known as The Great Waldo was also one of the greatest regurgitators of all time. He grew up in Germany just before the start of World War II and fell in love with the circus, particularly the sideshow acts who taught him how to swallow and bring up objects at will. He fled to Switzerland after Adolf Hitler invaded Austria and found a place for his art in nightclubs and theaters. A talent scout from America discovered him and brought him back to the States, where he became a sideshow legend. He also elevated the art of regurgitation by not only swallowing inanimate objects and bringing them back, but by swallowing live animals such as white mice and frogs and bring them back up completely unharmed (at least not physically, we assume).

8. Hadji Ali

This notorious vaudevillian had a gift for gastrointestinal fortitude that made him one of the biggest variety stars of his time and the object of desire of some of the silver screen’s biggest movie stars.

The mysterious Arab figure who found fame in the 1920s was actually born in Wolverthampton, England. He toured dressed as a mystic Middle Eastern man willing to swallow any number of items including watermelon seeds and whole walnuts, who could also bring them back up in any order. His signature trick, one that landed him an appearance in the Spanish language version of Laurel and Hardy’s film “Chickens Come Home,” involved swallowing a ridiculous amount of water and topping it off with a large dose of kerosene. He would then vomit the mixture back on a small flaming castle brought on the stage to the shock of his audiences. He was so well known in his time that actress Judy Garland called him her favorite vaudevillian.

9. The Enigma

This puzzling performer got his start with one of the world’s most famous traveling sideshows, the Jim Rose Circus.

The Enigma (real name: Paul Lawrence) toured with the legendary grunge circus during its Seattle days in the early 1990s. He started as “Slug,” swallowing any number of tiny animals such as crickets, maggots, and worms before getting a full tattoo of a puzzle over his entire body and horns implanted in his skull to become The Enigma. He made numerous television appearances, including on an infamous episode of The X-Files called “Humbug.” Rose offers Scully a live cricket to eat (which Gillian Anderson immediately spat out after the cameras stopped rolling).

10. Chaz Chase

One of vaudeville’s longest working performers also had one of its more unusual acts.

Chase looked like a typical circus clown, but his performance cast him in a much different light. He became renowned for being able to eat just about anything put in front of him including paper, lit matches, coins, flowers and cigarettes. He appeared in several silent films and worked well into his 70s and 80s with a surprising amount of exuberance and agility for a man his age. He also did quite a bit of touring around the world and was required to bring along a large amount of items to swallow, which sometimes got him in trouble. According to one report from 1947, customs officials in Sydney, Australia refused to let him into the country after they caught him carrying more than 400 cigarettes and 75 cigars. He had to perform his bizarre act for the agents to prove that he wasn’t a smuggler.

11. Tom Mullica

Mullica, one of the world’s best known comic magicians, had an act that turned heads and stomachs: He would seemingly smoke and swallow an entire package of lit cigarettes. He would light them one at a time and hold them in his mouth as they were still lit and bring each back so he could add them to the pile before choking them all down with a handful of napkins. He eventually retired the act after he quit smoking.

12. Tokyo Shock Boys

This slapstick stunt show that started in Japan has performed all kinds of painful and humiliating acts in their 30 years in show business. They even include some things that aren’t really tricks, but closer to public displays of torture for our twisted amusement.

This furious foursome came together in the 1990s while they worked as roadies during Paul McCartney’s tour of Japan. Their appearances on some local variety shows made them stars practically overnight and gave them their own long-running stage show that has since toured all over the world. Most of their act consists of Jackass-style stunts such as breaking a cactus in half with their butt cheeks and wearing a diaper filled with lit firecrackers. They are also known to eat unusual things, such as dishwashing soap and detergent, and to swallow whole chunks of dry ice.

For 12-12-12, we’ll be posting twenty-four '12 lists' throughout the day. Check back 12 minutes after every hour for the latest installment, or see them all here.

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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