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12 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Professional Clowns

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They made Egyptian pharaohs laugh as early as 2500 BCE. In ancient Rome, they were known as the stupidus, or fool. In the 20th century, they became synonymous with the red-nosed archetypes pushed by Bozo and the omnipresent Ronald McDonald. They’re professional clowns, full-time jesters who forgo subtlety in pursuit of making the audiences at birthday parties, parades, and hospitals forget their troubles.

Lately clowns have been frowning more than usual, thanks to the negative press around the creepy clown scare of 2016. For thousands of painted faces, however, clowning is an art. Mental Floss spoke with several professional fools—and we mean that in the most affectionate way possible—about their trade language, finding the right pair of giant shoes, and why some of them opt for insurance.

1. CLOWN SHOES ARE EXPENSIVE.

Don’t be fooled by the cheap, flimsy clown shoes you find in Halloween costume shops. A proper pair of oversized shoes needs to withstand hours of walking, jumping, and performing, all while maintaining a snug fit around the entertainer’s human-sized feet. “A pair of clown shoes costs anywhere from $200 to $500,” says Bebop the Clown, a performer based in San Antonio, Texas and former education director of the World Clown Association (WCA). “In order for you to clown properly in them, they need to fit. If not, they can really hurt your back.”

2. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN TRADE LANGUAGE.

Like the carnival workers they sometimes collaborate with, clowns have developed their own industry shorthand. “It’s all hidden terminology you can’t really find in books,” says Benjamin Domask, a clown based in New York City. “A ‘Joey’ is a term for a clown named after Joseph Grimaldi, one of the first clowns to dress up in face paint.” There’s also the blow-off (punchline), the clown stop (a short performance), and “bump a nose” (a.k.a. “break a leg”). A cluster of clowns is known as a “giggle.”

3. THEY HAVE CLOWN CONVENTIONS.

As with any trade, clowns like to congregate to exchange tips and look at the newest in clown industry advancements. “We have conferences with exhibitors and vendor rooms,” Bebop says. “There are often a lot of magicians there offering tricks [for sale].” Conventions are also home to courses in clowning, from balloon-tying to training as a “caring clown” for hospital visits. At night, clown parties feature clown socializing, complete with a red (nose) carpet.

4. YOU CAN THANK THE CIRCUS FOR CLOWN PHOBIAS.

As a student and teacher of clown history, Domask has an idea of what initially brought on bouts of coulrophobia, or fear of clowns, in the general public. “In the 1800s, as circuses got bigger and bigger, clowns needed to up their game,” he says. “They needed bigger movements, and thicker face paint, so audiences in seats further up could see them. But it’s like when a stage actor appears and is still wearing all that make-up. Up close, it’s really creepy-looking to have all of that caked on.” Clowns playing private engagements use fewer layers of paint, but the apprehension over unsettling circus clowns remains.

5. THERE ARE SEVERAL SUB-CATEGORIES OF CLOWN.

One of the first things students attending classes hosted by the WCA find out is that there is no one required clown uniform. According to Bebop, there are a few different ways for a person's "clown character" to manifest: “The Harlequin, or white-faced clown, is the classic and the highest,” she says. “There’s also the Auguste, or the buffoon type. Then there’s the hobo or tramp, and then a character-type clown.” The Auguste might wear pink as a face paint base instead of white and is more bumbling than the Harlequin; the character-type clown might be an existing persona, such as a baseball player or referee, but inside a clown suit. The differences become apparent, Bebop says, when clown duos work together. “One might be the whiteface and one might be the buffoon, taking the pie in the face.”

6. THEY KNOW HOW TO READ EACH OTHER.

According to Domask, veteran clowns can develop a certain expression in their eyes that becomes immediately recognizable to other clowns. “It’s a kind of look we develop,” he says of the non-verbal cue. “You can read a clown’s comfort or emotional state." In addition to expressing mood, Domask says, the look can reveal whether the clown is up for some dual clown-performance. "If two clowns meet, you can tell if the other wants to play around.”

7. THEY HARDLY EVER BREAK CHARACTER.

Once a clown is suited up for a performance, it can be difficult to relate to people as a “regular” person. As a result, Bebop says that clowns tend to turn even the most mundane daily activities into a mini-performance. “Once you put the nose on, you lose the luxury of being a person,” she says. “You can’t walk up to a group of people waiting for an elevator and go, ‘Gosh, travel sure was awful.’” Instead, Bebop will do something like passing out “tickets” for the elevator, then “collecting” them as people board.

8. THEY DO WEDDINGS.

It’s true: Some couples enjoy the presence of a clown during their nuptials. “I’ve done a couple of weddings, including one same-sex couple that had a Mardi Gras wedding theme,” Domask says. “They hired me to perform during the reception.”

9. PARADE CLOWNS NEED SPECIAL SKILLS.

While clowns can engage in mischief pretty much anywhere, performers who elect to join street parades need to put a little more thought into their act. “We call it ‘paradability,’” Bebop says of clowns best suited for that kind of engagement. “Someone might have the idea to carry a steering wheel around. How heavy is the steering wheel? Is it going to be hot out? Is the gag feasible when the parade is three miles long?”

10. THERE’S CLOWN INSURANCE.

Although he’s never had to make use of it, Domask does have variety performers' insurance in the event that he has a clowning mishap. “A lot of companies offer it,” he says. The World Clown Association provides it as a perk for members, offering up to a million dollars in coverage in the event a child has an allergic reaction to face paint or property damage occurs, among other potential misadventures.

11. THERE’S AN AUDIENCE AGE CAP.

Clowns can be found just about anywhere, from children’s hospitals to nursing homes. But for your average birthday booking, Bebop says that particularly juvenile clowns can spare themselves a lot of grief by limiting their audiences to ages seven and under. “Bebop as a character is five years old and my market is seven and under,” she says. “When I get calls that ask me to go perform for a bunch of 12-year-old Boy Scouts, I say, ‘Okay, here’s another number to call.’ A 12-year-old will eat Bebop alive.”

12. THERE’S A WAY TO GET A GUARANTEED LAUGH.

Sometimes, audiences will resist the charms of a clown, and no amount of balloon-tying, face-painting, or pratfalls will cut it. In that instance, Domask says he keeps one go-to move in his arsenal. “I just stick my finger up my nose and pretend to pick it,” he says.

All images courtesy of Getty Images.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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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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