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Mabel Stark: The Lady with the Tigers

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Mabel Stark was the most famous female tiger tamer ever. She worked with the animals from 1911 to 1968, was mauled many times, and kept coming back for more, even into her old age.  

The story of Stark's early life is hard to pin down accurately, as she embellished the facts liberally to make a good story in various interviews and her autobiography. Most sources agree she was born in Kentucky with the name Mary Haynie, although she said at least once that she was born in Canada. Her birthdate varied, but appears to be around 1889. She was an only child or one of seven, and her parents died within the same month or two years apart when she was 11 or 13 or 17. We know that she was trained as a nurse before she joined a circus as a hoochie-coochie dancer somewhere around 1909. But Stark later claimed she went straight from nursing school to the Al G. Barnes Circus in 1911 to become an animal trainer.  

No one starts out in the circus as a tiger tamer, however. Stark was assigned to riding horses, which she hated. She wanted to work with tigers, the most dangerous animal in the circus. Stark approached the circus' head animal trainer, Hungarian Louis Roth, and trained under him -and was even married to him for a short time. Roth would have preferred for Stark to work with lions, but she insisted on tigers. Roth advocated training big cats by rewarding them with meat, as opposed to just beating them into submission as earlier trainers did. In other words, Roth used the carrot and the stick instead of just the stick. Stark's first big cat performance was with two lions and two tigers, and she eventually worked up to as many as 18 tigers at once.  

Stark took in a sickly tiger cub that was rejected by his mother and raised him by hand. Rajah became instrumental in making Stark a star. She developed a shocking signature act in which she wrestled Rajah, causing the audience to believe she was being mauled. She admitted years later that Rajah was actually relieving himself sexually during this act, which looks very much like a vicious attack to anyone not familiar with tiger behavior. Stark started wearing a white uniform at this time so that the audience would not see tiger semen. The white costume became her signature, which she used for the rest of her career.   


The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus hired Stark away from Barnes in 1920. By then Stark had divorced Roth and was a star act. She married the circus's accountant Albert Ewing, who was embezzling funds from Ringling. They divorced when the crime was uncovered, but Stark believed she was being punished for her husband's sins when the circus cut all big cat acts in 1925. Ringling chiefs claimed that the cage took too long to assemble and tear down during a performance. Stark was still under contract, though, and was assigned to a horse act. Her tigers were kept on in the circus's menagerie, which was supervised by Art Rooney. Mabel later claimed that she married her first husbands for practical reasons, but she fell in love with Rooney. They soon married, which surprised other circus employees because Rooney wore makeup and nail polish, and they assumed he was not the marrying kind. Rooney died soon after under circumstances that were not recorded.

Stark was touring with the John Robinson Company when she was badly injured in 1928. The circus train was late getting to the venue in Bangor, Maine, the tigers were getting wet in the rain, and there was no time to feed them before the show. Normally, a cat act would be delayed or cancelled for this reason. But Stark let the show go on. Two hungry tigers named Sheik and Zoo mauled her during the show. Stark's own description of the incident:

"Sheik was right behind me, and caught me in the left thigh, tearing a two-inch gash that cut through to the bone and almost severed my left leg just above the knee. . .I could feel blood pouring into both my boots, but I was determined to go through with the act. . .(Zoo) jumped from his pedestal and seized my right leg, jerking me to the ground. As I fell, Sheik struck out with one paw, catching the side of my head, almost scalping me. . .Zoo gave a deep growl and bit my leg again. He gave it a shake, and planting both forefeet with his claws deep in my flesh, started to chew. . .I wondered into how many pieces I would be torn. . .Most of all I was concerned for the audience. . .I knew it would be a horrible sight if my body was torn apart before their eyes. And all my tigers would be branded as murderers and sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in narrow cages instead of being allowed the freedom of the big arena and the pleasure of working. That thought gave me strength to fight."

Stark managed to leave the cage with the help of another animal trainer, and insisted on changing out of her blood-soaked stage clothing before going to the hospital. Doctors sewed muscles and skin back together with 378 stitches, but did not expect her to survive. She was back to work within a few weeks, although the injuries troubled her and she was in and out of hospitals several times over the next two years for further muscle repair.

That was only the first of three serious maulings Stark suffered. In 1933, during a show featuring 18 tigers, one bit through her arm. She finished her act with the arm hanging limp before seeking medical attention. In 1950, Stark survived her third serious mauling, when her right arm was so mangled that it required 175 stitches. Once again, she recovered. But those were just the "severe" maulings -Mabel Stark had many other incidents in which she was injured by a big cat throughout her career. She always blamed herself, or other factors, but never the tigers. She loved them and respected them, but also said there was no such thing as a "tame tiger."  

Stark announced her retirement a couple of times, but always returned to performing. She appeared with various circuses through the 1930s. She worked as a stunt double in the lion-taming scenes for Mae West in the 1933 film I'm No Angel, which West wrote, possibly inspired by Stark's career. Hollywood work introduced Stark to Louis Goebel's Jungleland, a Thousand Oaks, California, facility that housed trained animals for movies. It later became a theme park, and Mabel Stark went to work there in 1938, eventually on a permanent basis. During her 30 years at Jungleland, she also found time to take her tiger act on the road to Europe and Japan. And she got married for the last time. Her fourth (or possibly fifth) husband was menagerie keeper Ed Trees, who died in 1953.

Jungleland was bought and sold several times during Stark's tenure, and the park declined financially through the 1960s (it was finally dismantled in 1969). The new owner in 1968 did not like Stark, and fired her. The 79-year-old tiger tamer did not want to retire. The loss of her job, combined with an incident in which one of her tigers escaped and was killed, sent her into despair. Mabel Stark took an overdose of barbiturates, and was found dead by her housekeeper on April 20, 1968. According to her 1938 autobiography Hold That Tiger, Stark would have preferred to die at the hands of a tiger than by any other means, but it was not to be. She had already survived that fate. 


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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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