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Wild About Houdini

Harry Houdini's Missing Scrapbook Has Been Found

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Wild About Houdini

Daring escapes were Harry Houdini’s forte, but even the classic illusionist would applaud the disappearing act his own scrapbook pulled. Before a Southern California antique dealer uncovered the book—the magician titled it “Important Scrap Book -- Miscellaneous Clippings”—earlier this month, Houdini’s scrapbook stayed missing and unread for about 83 years.

Most of the materials the magician compiled in the book come from 1925 and early 1926 newspaper clippings devoted to Spiritualism, from around the same time he started his own full-evening show, “Three Shows in One: Magic, Escapes, and Fraud Mediums Exposed.” Houdini spent most of the Roaring ‘20s, until his death on Halloween of 1926, demystifying fraudulent psychics and ghostbusting séances.

The book has handwritten annotations from Houdini, and the clippings cover his famous debunking of fakes. Disproving psychics and mediums was a sort of obsession for the son of a Hungarian immigrant; Houdini once told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, “It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer.”

One account chronicled through clippings is Houdini’s most famous public confrontations with a medium—his brush with Bostonian socialite Mina “Margery the Medium” Crandon. Crandon competed for a $2500 Scientific American prize that would be awarded for proving “conclusive psychic manifestations”—until Houdini staged an elaborate exposé of the medium’s psychic prowess (or lack thereof) at the Boston Symphony Hall in January 1925. After responding with a performance of her own, Margery the Medium was finally bested that spring by a Harvard graduate student studying psychology.

Houdini also stashed some not-so-spiritualistic clips in his scrapbook, including a story musing whether pets live after death, a French article about himself from a Montreal newspaper, a page about performing for Teddy Roosevelt’s grandchildren, and more than a few clippings about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The mystery writer, a firm believer in Spiritualism, piqued Houdini’s interest in the subject. A journalist once said the odd pair of friends “looked like Pooh and Piglet” when the duo stood next to each other.

In true Houdini form, the scrapbook escaped from the Library of Congress’s collection of more than 100 Houdini scrapbooks (the man was one seriously dedicated scrapbook hobbyist). John Cox, who runs the Wild About Houdini fan site, speculates, “It could be Edward Saint (magician and conductor of séances) brought this book to California when he and Bessie (Houdini’s widow) relocated here in the 1930s.”

In his 1924 book A Magician Among the Spirits, Houdini wrote about how he “accumulated one of the largest libraries in the world on psychic phenomena, Spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, demonology, evil spirits, etc.” The one hundred scrapbooks are just a fraction of that collection, but Houdini proved to be quick with the scissors when combing through newspapers.

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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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iStock
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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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iStock

Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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