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7 Ways People Humiliated Each Other 100 Years Ago

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A few good and/or horrifying practical jokes found in books from the early 20th century. Don't try these in modern times.

1. Air Hose to the Rectum

Some of the pranks we found were presented as cautionary tales to the reader—including this one, from a 1921 Safety Pamphlet for industrial laborers. The prank itself is simple enough; just blow super-compressed air up someone’s unsuspecting bottom, giving them the biggest goosing of their lives, and everyone laughs. The pamphlet devoted a special section to what must have been a common practice: 

Ed, as a practical joke, slipped up behind Will and held the compressed air nozzle against his rectum. The air instantly burst the large intestine. Blood poisoning immediately followed and in three days Will was dead.

I know how hard it is, when you top off your tires at the gas station, not to squeeze that nozzle and look around for the nearest unsuspecting large intestine, but for the love of God, control yourself. As the ad clearly states, “THIS TRICK ALWAYS KILLS THE VICTIM.”

2. Black Sand Jack

Writer Henry Llewellyn Williams tells one of the most brazen practical jokes to ever be perpetrated on a room full of grizzled 19th century gold prospectors. One night in the saloon, Jack—a mountain man widely known for his steely disposition and strange ways—entered the bar. He held gunpowder in his hand and announced, “Boys! I’ve lived long enough.” He set the powder off to a fine small explosion, capturing everyone’s attention. Then as if gripped by rage, he tore off his entire powder horn and threw it into the saloon fire, screaming, “And let every brave man die with me!”

No brave men were present that day, as everyone left their money and gold and ran for their lives. No explosion occurred, and the prospectors gradually filtered back in to find both Jack and a good amount of their money gone. Once the initial outrage died down, he became known almost affectionately as “Black Sand Jack,” since that is what he’d thrown in the fire. He was never seen in that settlement again.

3. Meat Handles

This joke required a set-up rarely seen today. Gates had pull-strings for their bells, which would announce a visitor to the house. Jokers would tie a piece of raw meat tightly to the string overnight, ensuring that every stray dog and cat (and there were a lot in those days) would end up ringing the bell. But when the startled occupant would come to the door with his candle held high, he would see no one, either because of the height of the gate or having himself startled away the animals. This would continue at random intervals all night. And, should the bell pull be near enough for him to see the meat, the very act of trying to remove it would cause a neighborhood-rousing uproar of clanging, while still leaving enough scent on the pull-string to continue the parade of animal visitors.

4. Horrible Swelling

This joke was best done at a university or boarding school, and requires dexterity with a needle and thread. While the victim sleeps, take his clothing and run quick hems down the legs of his pants and the arms of his shirt. The goal is to make the clothes too small in such a way that a sleep addled brain wouldn’t immediately notice. Listen carefully through the door to hear your victim rising and trying to shove himself into clothes that just don’t quite fit, though they did mere hours ago. Then, enter the room as if by accident and cry out in horror, saying, “What happened? You’ve swollen grotesquely in the night! Call the doctor! I’ve never seen a case of dropsy so severe and sudden!” This would have been most successful at a time when people had no electric lights, mirrors, and all the worldly guile of a 3-year-old.

5. The Sinning Donkey

This is the story of a mischievous Frenchman (yes, they specified a Frenchman) who happened upon a donkey tied outside of an inn. He eased the animal out of its harness, and shooed it away where a friend was waiting to steal it. He then tied himself up in the harness. When the owner of the donkey returned, the Frenchman fell to his knees and wailed with joy, “Thank you dear Lord, for allowing me to return to my human form! My sins have been forgiven, my time of penance has passed!” With that he staggered away, as if in a trance of joy. The next day his friend took the donkey to be sold at market, and sure enough, the donkey’s original owner was there. Upon seeing the beast he cried, “What? Has the wretch sinned again?” He then addressed the entire market, “For the love of God, friends, have nothing to do with this animal. He fooled me once, but I will not be caught again.”

6. Sign Switcheroo

Once upon a time, clever teenagers did not have marquee boards outside of schools and restaurants to rearrange letters on, making “Try our Angus Beef Quarter-Pounder” into … well, you’ve been on the Internet long enough to see where that’s going. Instead, truly enterprising young men would hack off and switch particular pieces of shop signs, cutting a piece off here and nailing on a piece there. The marriage of a surgeon’s theater sign with a piece of a washwoman’s would read, “Mr. Hickstrop, Surgeon. Mangling done here.” Or, a hairdresser’s sign tacked up with that of a coach rental to read, “Robert Dickenson Coaches to Let as Well as Ladies’ Fronts and Toupees.” 

7. Sheet String

This one required drilling a small hole in the wall between your neighbor’s bedroom and your own, and was only for the most determined, obnoxious of jokers. While the victim is out, sew thin string to the bed coverings, and feed the string back through the hole to your own room. Then, once your victim starts snoring, gently pull the blankets off his body. He will awake confused, replace the blankets, and grow increasingly agitated through the night as you continue to torture him. Which was apparently worth staying up all night.

This post was inspired by this Reddit thread.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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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:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


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]