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Blog.Hemmings.com

6 People Who Went to Great Lengths for Their Pranks

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Blog.Hemmings.com

Julie Winterbottom is the former editor in chief of Nickelodeon magazine, where she fulfilled her childhood dream of getting paid to write jokes; her book, Pranklopedia: The Funniest, Grossest, Not-Mean Pranks on the Planet! is on sale now. Julie lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she pulls pranks on her boyfriend and cat.

In honor of April Fools’ Day—which is next Monday—here are six people who went to great lengths to pull some one-of-a-kind pranks.

1. A Garden of Mirthly Delights

Hellbrunn.at

Prince Archbishop Markus Sittikus ruled Salzburg from 1612 to 1619. Soon after he ascended the throne, he commissioned a summer palace to be built at the foot of Hellbrunn Mountain. The enormous Italianate mansion was everything you’d expect from a wealthy nobleman—but the garden was another story. Sittikus had the gardens rigged with trick fountains and statues that squirted people with water as they strolled by. A long stone dinner table had nine stools with water nozzles hidden in the seats so Sittikus could give his guests surprise showers. (A tenth stool, reserved for Sittikus, was nozzle-free.) Today Sittikus’s palace is a tourist attraction—and the sprayers still work. So if you end up visiting, watch where you sit.

2. A Rare Breed of Prankster

Feline Historical Foundation

Brian G. Hughes was a New York manufacturer and banker, but according to his 1924 obituary, his true calling was prankster. Hughes liked to hoax prominent people who he believed took themselves too seriously—like the directors of the snooty National Cat Show. In 1895, Hughes bought a stray cat from a hobo for 30 cents, cleaned it up, and a few months later entered it in the show under the name Nicodemus. Hughes told the judges the cat was a rare “Irish Brindle” valued at $3000. Nicodemus won a first prize, at which point Hughes revealed the hoax—and the cat’s real name, Josephine—much to the embarrassment of the judges.

3. Fruit of the Loony

Thinkstock/Bryan Dugan

In 1950, California cartoonist Frank Adams’s wild idea for a prank bore fruit—literally. The National Orange Show had just taken place in San Bernardino, not far from Adams’ home, and there were thousands of oranges left over. Adams managed to get ahold of them and then convinced 25 friends to help him attach all 50,000 oranges to pine trees along a section of the Rim of the World highway. They did the job under cover of night, and the next morning, drivers were amazed to see that the pines trees had magically produced a crop of citrus.

4. All the Way with LBJ

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President Lyndon B. Johnson adored cars and kept a large collection of cherished Lincolns and other vehicles at his Texas ranch. One of his most unusual cars was an Amphicar—it looked like a normal car, but was amphibious and functioned like a motorboat when it entered a body of water. Johnson realized this vehicle was perfect for pranking guests. He would invite his visitors to take a drive around the ranch with him in the blue convertible. When they got to a steep hill at the edge of a lake, Johnson would let the car pick up speed. Then he’d yell, “The brakes don’t work! The brakes won’t hold! We’re going in!” As the car entered the lake, the passengers would panic—until they realized that rather than sinking, they were motoring across the lake. One victim of the prank, Special Assistant to the President Joseph A. Califano, Jr., recalled that his boss teased him later for trying to save his own skin instead of the president’s.

5. A Traffic-Stopping Prank

In 2006, students at Austin High School in Austin, Minnesota engineered a prank that capitalized on the unusual architecture of their school. A busy street separates two buildings on the school’s campus. Students can use the crosswalk or an underground tunnel to get from one building to the other. At an appointed time on the day of the prank, 94 students began filing across the street, using the crosswalk. Then they circled back through the underground tunnel and crossed the street again—and again, and again—creating an endless stream of pedestrians. Traffic was tied up for nearly 10 minutes as cars lined up waiting for the students (including one dressed as a cow and another as a chicken) to finish crossing.

6. Panhandler Party

One evening in August 2012, actor and comedian Gary Lee Mahmoud gave some New York City straphangers the ride of their life. NYC commuters are used to panhandlers coming through the subway cars asking for money or selling candy and other goods. Mahmoud and his co-conspirators took this phenomenon to a hilarious extreme, creating a “panhandler party.” Over the course of four minutes, actors portraying 10 different panhandlers—including an angry Wall Streeter who didn’t get his bonus—invade a single subway car. By the end of the prank, the entire carful of commuters is cracking up.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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