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11 Outrageous Moments in Niagara Falls Barrel-Riding

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For decades, thrill-seekers have fought the odds and common sense by going over the world’s most famous waterfalls in rickety containers—a trip that has claimed several lives.

1. 63-Year-Old Takes the Plunge

The strange custom of going down Niagara Falls in a barrel began with an elderly music and dance teacher named Annie Edson Taylor. Hoping the stunt would make her rich and famous, she had a customized unit made which included safety straps and a breathing tube. On October 24, 1901—her 63rd birthday—her preparation paid off when she survived her trip, only to wait 20 gut-wrenching minutes for a rescue boat to nab the contraption. Unfortunately, she achieved neither fame nor fortune and died penniless in 1921.

2. Bobby Leach and the Deadly Orange Peel


Irony, thy name is Leach! This British circus performer repeated Taylor’s death-defying antics in 1911. Though battered and bruised, he lived to tell the tale … only to die of medical complications after slipping on an orange peel 15 years later.

3. Charles G. Stephens Goes Out on a Limb

Charles G. Stephens was the first casualty of Niagara’s dangerous sport. Believing it would make his trip safer, the middle-aged barber tied his right arm to the specialized vessel—which is all that was found of him after it broke apart. Stephens’ severed appendage received a proper burial at a nearby cemetery.

4. Hill to the Rescue


Between 1910 and 1942, if you wanted to follow in Taylor’s footsteps, Red Hill Sr. was the man to see. Though he never tried besting the falls himself, it was Hill who rescued Leach and tried to warn Stephens about his treacherous barrel. An accomplished stuntman in his own right, Hill most notably ventured through the deadly Niagara whirlpool in 1930, securing his place in the Daredevil Hall of Fame.

5. Have a Ball!

Barrels just don’t cut it for some adrenaline junkies. Enter Jean Lussier of New Hampshire. Hearing of Stephens’ plight, Lussier decided to forego traditional methods and invested his life savings in a gigantic rubber ball. The summer of 1928 saw thousands of spectators gather to witness its maiden voyage. Lussier’s journey was a triumphant success and he decided to stay in the region, selling off pieces of the historic sphere to eager tourists.

6. The World’s Luckiest Turtle

George L. Stathakis may have sealed his doom by telling the press that if he didn’t survive his upcoming ride over the falls, his pet turtle, “Sonny Boy," who went with him, would live on to tell their story. Lo and behold, the fortunate reptile made it out alive—which was more than could be said for his owner. Sonny Boy, however, declined to comment.

7. Disaster at the Astrodome

The following news bulletin was filmed in July 1984, after 37-year-old Canadian Karl Soucek cascaded down Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls.

His efforts to replicate the feat at the Houston Astrodome that winter turned deadly when he crashed onto the rim of the water tank he was supposed to land in after a 180-foot drop, fracturing his skull and crushing his abdomen.

8. Super Dave Can’t Be Stopped!

Who was the first man to go over Niagara Falls twice? Unsatisfied with his first barrel ride in 1985, John “Super Dave” Munday returned to give it another go in 1993.

9. “Say ‘No’ to Drugs!”

Educators, take note: There are easier ways to denounce substance abuse than climbing into a 3000-pound steel barrel and dropping down a waterfall. This ill-conceived strategy belonged to Peter DeBernardi and Jeffrey Petkovich, who became the first duo to take the Niagara plunge in 1989. Inscribed on the side of their bright yellow cylinder was the helpful slogan “Don’t Put Yourself on the Edge—Drugs Will Kill You!”

10. David Copperfield’s Televised Escape

“Over the years, a number of people have tried to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel,” magician David Copperfield said in a 1990 TV special. "Many died trying. But guess what? I don’t plan on joining them.” His elaborate performance, involving chains, flames, and a helicopter, can be seen here:

11. Of Parachutes & Jet Skis

Like DeBernardi and Petkovich, Robert Overcracker wanted to raise awareness about a pressing issue: homelessness. Knowing a Jet Ski would attract more attention than a boring old barrel, Overcracker rode over the peak before plummeting to his death when the specially-designed parachute he’d brought failed to open. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]