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7 People Whose Death Notices Improved Their Lives

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These folks, falsely declared dead, came out stronger on the other side.

1. Betty Robinson

At the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, Betty Robinson, a 16-year-old student from Riverdale, Ill., won a gold medal in the 100-meter dash and a silver medal as part of the 100-meter relay team. But her most impressive athletic achievement would come eight years later, when she staged one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.

In 1931, Robinson was flying in a small biplane with her cousin when they crashed near Chicago. After she was pulled from the wreckage, emergency workers declared her dead. Her body was placed in the trunk of a car and driven to a mortician, who realized that she was still alive. Robinson had suffered a concussion, a broken leg, a cracked hip, and a crushed arm. She would spend a total of seven months in a coma, followed by another six in a wheelchair.

Miraculously, after just three years, Robinson was able to walk again. And before long, she was running. Within three years, she’d resumed training and was up to her previous speed. But because she couldn’t bend her knees enough to crouch in the official starting position, she wasn’t qualified to compete in most races. She could still pass a baton, though. So, at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, she was allowed to be the third runner in the 100-meter relay team. Although the German team led for most of the race, their final runner dropped the baton, and the U.S. team sprinted ahead to win by eight yards. Just five years after she’d been delivered to the undertaker, Robinson won her second Olympic gold.

2. Edward V. Rickenbacker

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Edward Vernon Rickenbacker was an ace fighter pilot and one of America’s most dashing heroes. During World War II, he was sent to deliver a message to General Douglas MacArthur, who was leading the Pacific campaign from New Guinea. But in October of 1942, tragedy struck when Rickenbacker’s B-17 went down somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. After weeks of searching for his body, newspapers declared the war hero dead.

Twenty-four days after the accident, Rickenbacker and six of his companions were found alive, floating on a raft in the middle the ocean. Headlines nicknamed the pilot “Ironman Eddie” and “That Indestructible Man of Aviation.” Rickenbacker was thankful to have survived, but the weeks of starvation and dehydration had token a toll on his physical and emotional health. He and his men had to watch, helpless, as one of their ranks died aboard the raft. After Rickenbacker returned to health, he set about making certain that no soldier suffered such pain again. He used his fame to encourage the U.S. Air Force to design new life rafts equipped with radios and emergency supplies. Fittingly, they became known as “Rickenbackers.”

But Rickenbacker’s work was far from over. He also used his influence to gather a group of leading American scientists, whom he charged with finding a practical means of desalinating seawater. They soon developed a pill that would make a small quantity of seawater drinkable, and the U.S. Navy distributed it to all sailors. For the remaining years of his life, Rickenbacker campaigned tirelessly to find a better way to take the salt out of water. “Water is our greatest life-giving natural resource,” he wrote in his 1967 autobiography. “By desalinating water from the great oceans we can, without building huge reservoirs and inundating more land, irrigate the deserts and feed half a billion more people.” Although he’s best remembered as a war hero, Rickenbacker was also one of the world’s first environmental warriors.

3. Sherlock Holmes

In 1893, after six years of writing Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle decided to kill off his most popular character. “For some while now,” he wrote in a letter to his mother, “I’ve been tiring of my detective creation.” And so, in The Adventure of the Final Problem, Holmes plunges to his death at Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls in a final struggle with his nemesis, Professor James Moriarty.

To say that readers were shocked by the detective’s demise is to put it mildly. Many wrote abusive letters to Doyle; others wore black armbands in mourning. Even Queen Victoria was reportedly offended, personally asking Conan Doyle to bring back the legendary detective. “I was amazed at the concern expressed by the public,” wrote Doyle. “They say that a man is never properly appreciated until he is dead, and the general protest against my summary execution of Holmes taught me how many and how numerous were his friends.”

It wasn’t long before Doyle bowed to public pressure. In 1901, he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles, a new Holmes story that takes place before the hero’s dramatic downfall. But that wasn’t good enough for the mystery-loving public; fans wanted Holmes alive. Caving once again to his readers’ demands, Doyle resurrected the detective (and received a record sum of money from his publishers in return). In the first of these stories, The Adventure of the Empty House, Holmes explains that he’d flung Moriarty down Reichenbach Falls and faked his own death to escape his enemy’s henchmen. With a satisfied fan base back on board, Doyle continued to write Sherlock Holmes adventures for decades, stopping only three years before his own death in 1930.

4. Samuel Coleridge

In 1813, poet and playwright Samuel Taylor Coleridge was riding a professional high. His play Remorse: A Tragedy in Five Acts was a hit at London theaters, and he was enjoying critical and financial success. But instead of writing a follow-up, Coleridge disappeared for six months.

He was known to suffer from depression and opium addiction, and many worried that the poet was dead. In the spring of that year, a newspaper reported Coleridge’s suicide. According to the story, a man had been found hanging from a tree, and although he had no means of identification, his shirt was marked “S. T. Coleridge.”

A few days later, Coleridge was sitting in a hotel café when he heard the news of his death. When he read the newspaper report, he smiled and quipped that he was probably the first man “to hear of a lost shirt in this way.”

Where had Coleridge been all that time? Uncomfortable with his newfound fame, the poet had retreated into his opium habit. He’d been quietly getting high in the countryside and avoiding his friends and family. But the false death announcement served as a wake-up call, and Coleridge began writing again. Within three years, he’d published his most popular verse, “Kubla Khan.”

5. Nikki Sixx

In the 1980s, Mötley Crüe bassist and songwriter Nikki Sixx was the poster boy for rock ‘n’ roll excess. “I was the only one in the band without a family, a girlfriend, a wife, or any prospects, and I was too smacked out to care,” he said. “I felt like the McDonald’s of rock ‘n’ roll; my life was disposable.” One night in London in 1986, he passed out in his drug dealer’s apartment after injecting heroin and was left for dead. He later woke up, reportedly in a dumpster.

Yet, it would take an even more shocking near-death experience for Sixx to change his ways. After another heroin overdose in December 1987, Sixx was incorrectly declared dead in an ambulance while being rushed to L.A.’s Cedars Sinai Medical Center.

Word of his alleged passing leaked to the press. When he came to in the hospital, a terrified Sixx ripped the tubes out of his nose and fled, wearing only his leather pants. In the parking lot, he found two teenage fans in mourning, who—once they’d gotten over the shock of seeing him alive—gave him a ride home. In the car, he heard reports of his death on the radio that included interviews with his friends and family. Soon after, he admitted to the band that he couldn’t control his addiction, entered rehab, and successfully gave up drugs and alcohol.

Sixx’s experience jolted the rest of the band into sobriety, and ironically, temperance made them bigger rock stars than they’d ever been before. Mötley Crüe peaked commercially with the release of its next album, Dr. Feelgood, in 1989. The band attributed the album’s success to their collective push toward clean living.

6. The Biograph Girl

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In the early years of the movies, one of the most famous faces of the silver screen was “the Biograph Girl.” The star’s familiar smile always brought in the crowds. But in keeping with the practice of the times, audiences never learned her name. Her anonymity was part of a business model pioneered by Thomas Edison, which was designed to keep movie stars’ egos in check and their salaries down.

All of this changed in 1910, when film distributor Carl Laemmle lured the Biograph Girl to his new studio, promising her fame and fortune. Laemmle wanted to turn the Biograph Girl into a proper celebrity, and he had just the publicity stunt in mind to pull it off. First, he sent out a press report saying that the Biograph Girl had died in a tragic streetcar accident in St. Louis. Her fans barely had time to mourn her death before Laemmle sent out a second notice, revealing that the actress was alive and working exclusively for his studio. More importantly, the report also revealed her identity. The Biograph Girl was a 24-year-old, Canadian-born showgirl named Florence Lawrence.

The PR campaign worked like a charm. A week after Laemmle’s announcement, Lawrence made a public appearance in St. Louis, where she was greeted by crowds larger than those that had greeted President Taft there the previous week. But Florence Lawrence’s career wasn’t the only one elevated to new heights by the publicity stunt. Within the next few years, the cinema started attracting great actors from the stage—people who’d previously thumbed their noses at the pictures, including “the Divine” Sarah Bernhardt. And by 1912, producer Carl Laemmle had founded Universal Studios, one of the most successful production companies in history.

7. Mark Twain

In 1897, famed author and humorist Mark Twain was 61, bankrupt, and living quietly in London. He hadn’t had a major success since A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court eight years earlier, and his recent books had received scathing reviews. Rumors of his financial woes had even spread across the pond, prompting one New York newspaper to launch a charity fund in his name. (Twain asked them to close the fund.)

Then, in May of 1897, the editor of a major newspaper in New York heard that Twain was seriously ill, perhaps even dead, and dispatched a young reporter to probe for details. In response to the investigation, Twain famously quipped, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Like a 19th-century Tweet, the line went viral, and newspapers around the world joyously reported the news that both Twain and his sense of humor were still kicking. Once the author was back in the spotlight, people started buying his books again, and Twain’s finances rapidly improved.

Strangely, that wasn’t the last time Twain’s passing would be inaccurately reported. A decade later, The New York Times reported that the author was lost at sea and possibly dead, again. The next day, Twain, who was safely on dry land, wrote in to the paper. “I will make an exhaustive investigation of this report that I have been lost at sea,” he joked. “If there is any foundation for the report, I will at once apprise the anxious public.” For the remaining three years of Mark Twain’s life, no one else falsely reported his passing.

This story originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

All images courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise noted.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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