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Wikimedia Commons

The True Stories of 4 Victorian Fasting Girls

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Wikimedia Commons

The Breatharian movement has been getting some ink lately, largely in thanks to this Seattle woman and this Sri Lankan man. People who follow the movement believe that humans don’t need food or water to survive, just “photons and light and vibrations and wind,” according to Breatharian Kirby de Lanerolle.

Despite the recent flurry of activity, people who claim they don’t need food to survive are nothing new. The Victorian Fasting Girls, young girls who supposedly stopped eating for months and even years at a time, were somewhat of a phenomenon from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. Here are a few of their stories.

1. Therese Neumann

In 1918, when Therese Neumann (above) was just 20, she fell into shock after taking a particularly nasty tumble off of a stool while trying to put out a fire at her uncle’s farm. The fall, which resulted in a spinal injury, seems to have been the direct or indirect cause of a whole host of maladies that occurred shortly thereafter, including paralysis, gastric problems and even blindness. By 1926, a “blood-colored serum” oozed from Therese’s eyes and she began suffering stigmata during Lent. In 1927, Therese believed she had been visited by St. Therese of Lisieux, who told her that food and water were no longer necessary—just Holy Communion. She was diligently observed day and night for two weeks in July 1927, with doctors and nurses even measuring the amount of mouthwash she used so they could make sure that she hadn’t swallowed any of it when she spit it back out. By the end of two weeks, the medical team concluded that their patient never took or even attempted to take food. Though she lost weight at the beginning of the observation period, Therese apparently gained five or six pounds by the end of it. The attending physician even testified under oath that not a morsel of nourishment, save for one consecrated Host daily, had passed her lips while he and his team were watching.

Therese allegedly followed this devout “diet” until her death in 1962.

2. Mollie Fancher


The Brooklyn Daily Eagle

When she was just 18, Brooklynite Mollie Fancher was the victim of a carriage accident that left her paralyzed. As she was exiting a carriage, her long skirt got caught on a hook. The carriage driver didn’t notice and dragged her for nearly a block before bystanders could get him to stop. A few months after the incident, Fancher confined herself to her bed and allegedly stopped eating for the next 16 years.

Observers claimed they never saw her consume food or drink, and at one point her stomach had “collapsed, so that by placing the hand in the cavity her spinal column could be felt.” She also went blind, but continued to produce intricate embroidery and detailed wax flowers. Oh yeah, Fancher also claimed to be clairvoyant. Doctors and spiritualists argued over whether “the Brooklyn Enigma” was a miracle or a fraud, but after a period of time it didn’t matter. By the late 1880s or early 1890s, she started eating in front of people again. Most of her other symptoms disappeared and she lived a rather unremarkable life until her non-starving-related death in 1916.

3. Sarah Jacob


Welsh Legal History

Across the pond from Mollie lived “the Welsh fasting girl,” Sarah Jacob. After suffering from convulsions sometime in 1866, Sarah began eating miniscule amounts of food and spent her days in bed, writing poems. Her parents claimed that she completely stopped eating as of October 10, 1867. Word spread quickly and Sarah became a celebrity, with newspapers writing about her and people traveling from across the country to witness this supposed little miracle. Accounts noted that they had never seen a girl who was such a picture of great health—her eyes were clear, her cheeks were rosy, and she even began to gain weight.

While some were inclined to believe that Sarah was miraculous, others believed that her parents were in on the whole scheme, secretly feeding her when the public was gone. Some thought that her sister passed her food when they kissed, like a mama bird. Eventually doctors asked to monitor Sarah around the clock, and whether they truly believed that their daughter was existing on air or were just unwilling to give up the ghost, Hannah and Evan Jacob allowed it. Six nurses were brought in to watch Sarah around the clock and were instructed to give Sarah food if she asked for it, but otherwise do nothing. Sarah refused to ask for food, and after four or five days, she lapsed into unconsciousness. She starved to death on December 12, 1869. An autopsy found the bones of a small bird or fish in her stomach, proving that she had been eating small amounts of food when no one was looking. Her parents were convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison.

4. Josephine Marie Bedard

Also known as the Tingwick Girl, Josephine Marie Bedard is a prime example of how fascinated the public was with these girls who seemingly did not need to ingest anything even remotely resembling nutrition to survive. When the 19-year-old Bedard claimed she had gone months without eating, two different museums in Boston wanted to put her on display so people could observe her not eating for the low, low price of fifty cents, not unlike an uneventful circus sideshow. In 1889, however, a local physician said that she found a bitten doughnut in Bedard’s pocket. The same physician also claimed that she left a platter with “three pieces of fried potato” on it in Bedard’s presence, then left the room. When she returned, one piece was missing. Though the physician had no proof of any of this, the speculation quickly ruined Bedard’s “credibility.”

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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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iStock

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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