CLOSE
Original image
Wikipedia

Toys, Trampling and Tragedy: The Victoria Hall Disaster

Original image
Wikipedia

If this year’s Black Friday is like any other, too many people will crowd into stores and trample over each other to get a deal on some Christmas presents. People will get hurt. Someone might even get killed. These types of incidents, where a rush for goods can turn into tragedy, aren’t anything new. One of the most infamous—a stampede for toys in 19th century England—left 183 children dead. 

On June 16, 1883, the Victoria Hall in Sunderland, England hosted what was billed as the “greatest treat for children ever given.” The Fays of Tynemouth—“conjurer” Alexander Fay and his sister Annie the “enchantress”—had come to town to perform their variety show, featuring magic tricks, waxworks, “living marionettes” and their “Great Ghost Illusion.” Some 2000 tickets had been sold, and most of the seats were filled with children. 

At the end of the performance, a special announcement was made: children holding certain numbered tickets would receive a free toy when they exited the hall, the Fays would distribute toys to other children from the stage and another man would take toys to the upper seating gallery. 

When the kids in the upper gallery heard that, they “obligingly rose en masse and went down the stairs to meet him,” remembered William Codling, was six when he attended the show. 

“I raced up the gallery as fast as I could, scrambled with the crowd through the doorway and jolted my way down two flights of stairs. Here the crowd was so compressed that there was no more racing but we moved forward together, shoulder to shoulder. Soon we were most uncomfortably packed but still going down.” 

At the bottom of the stairwell there was a problem. The door to the arena had been partially opened and then bolted, leaving only a space of about two feet to squeeze through. Only one person could get through at a time; the door might have been jammed this way to control movement into the lower level and make ticket-checking easier. There was no staff at the door to organize a line, though, and the mass of kids coming from the gallery were flooding down the stairs and rushing the door. The first few children who got down the stairs managed to squeeze through the doorway, but as more and more came down the exit got blocked. The stampede didn’t stop and as the kids in the back kept pushing forward, those at the bottom, unable to open the door any wider, were trapped underneath the weight of the crowd. 

“Suddenly I felt that I was treading upon someone lying on the stairs and I cried in horror to those behind, ‘Keep back, keep back! There’s someone down’,” Codling remembered. “It was no use, I passed slowly over and onwards with the mass and before long I passed over others without emotion. At last we came to a dead stop but still those behind came crowding on…”

“Children tumbled head over heels,” reported another witness. “The heap became higher and higher, until it became a mass of dying children over six feet in height.”

When the adults in the theater realized what was happening, they tried to pull the door open all the way, but the bolt was on the children’s side. Some adults ran up another staircase into the gallery to try and get the children still on the stairs to come back up.

“Then the pressure began to lessen,” Codling said. “A report spread that the toys were being distributed in the gallery and those behind having made a feeble rush upwards, back we tottered across that path of death. ... At the first landing we were met by some men and taken out of doors into the open air…Soon men began to come down the steps bearing in their arms lifeless burdens, and from the crowd came a wail of grief…”

In the end, 183 children between the ages of 3 and 14 died from being crushed and asphyxiated. Shock rippled through the whole country and a disaster fund raised 5000 pounds to pay for all the children’s funerals. Queen Victoria sent condolences to all the families and made her own donation to the funeral costs. Through the entire week that the funerals were held, businesses in Sunderland stayed closed as a sign of respect and mourning. The money that was left over from the fund was used to erect a memorial statue that stood in a park across from the hall, which was leveled during a German air raid during World War II. 

Parliament made two investigations into the Victoria Hall disaster, but failed to find who was responsible for bolting the door the way that they did. The tragedy did result in some good, though; the government issued new laws that required “places of public entertainment” to have a sufficient number of exits with doors that could easily open outward, leading to the development of the push-bar emergency exit.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Opening Ceremony
fun
arrow
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
Original image
Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

501069-OpeningCeremony2.jpg

Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES