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trialsanderrors, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

7 Magic Tricks That Went Horribly Wrong

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trialsanderrors, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Done right, magic tricks can fill us with a sense of childlike wonderment: From a clever card trick to a mullet-era David Copperfield illusion, we love to be fooled. Unfortunately, not all magicians escape their dramatic scenarios unscathed. Take a look at seven illusionists who didn’t have enough up their sleeves to avoid being mangled.

1. Charles Rowan and the Speeding Car

In magic, tension is everything. While a performer may be holding his or her breath underwater, the audience is holding theirs, waiting for signs of life. South African Charles Rowan understood the appeal of melodrama, which is why he repeatedly consented to being secured in a straitjacket while a car sped toward him at 45 miles per hour. Rowan performed this stunt many times, but it only needed to go awry once. While appearing in front of a sizable crowd in 1930, Rowan failed to dislodge himself in time; the car ran right over him, virtually severing his leg and ending his life. Prior to the stunt, Rowan wrote a letter of exoneration for the driver in case something went wrong.  

2. Princess Tenko and the Swords

This Japanese performer, known for her outlandish costumes, was onstage in the city of Sabae in 2007 when her show devolved into a Grand Guignol spectacle. Tenko was stuffed into a box where she was to become a pincushion for ten incoming swords if she didn’t escape in time. She did not, and the swords wound up breaking several ribs and her cheekbone. Amazingly, the Princess finished her performance before seeking medical attention.

3. Joe Burrus and the Cement

Comparing himself to the famed Harry Houdini, Joseph Burrus arranged for a Halloween night spectacle in 1990 where he would settle into a glass coffin and have nine tons of dirt and cement poured over him. The performance took place at Blackbeard’s Family Fun Center in Fresno, California. After being lowered seven feet into the ground, a chained-up Burrus waited while assistants directed a cement truck to unload its contents over the coffin. After one false start—the chain around his neck was too tight—Burrus made a second attempt. The cement crushed the coffin, suffocating him. It was a morbid homage to Houdini: He had also died on Halloween night.  

4. Genesta and the Milk Can

Houdini had made his name in part from the milk can escape, an often-imitated trick in which the magician is stuffed into an oversized container full of water, locked in, and given only moments to escape before drowning. Royden Joseph Gilbert Raison de la Genesta, or simply “Genesta,” was among those paying tribute to the illusion in a 1930 performance. The secret of the trick was that the neck of the container could come off, so locking on a lid made little difference. What Genesta didn’t realize is that the prop had been dropped during transit, creating a dent that sealed the neck and prevented it from moving. Though he was roused briefly at the hospital, Genesta died as a result of the accident.

5. George Lalonde and the Back-Stabbing Audience Member

Most sensible people regard illusions for what they are: bits of misdirection. But Henry Howard, who sat in the audience of a show in Montreal in 1936, became agitated when stage magician George Lalonde prepared to saw his assistant in half. Howard rushed the stage, grabbed a sword, and plunged it into Lalonde’s neck in what he perceived as an act of heroism. Lalonde survived, while Howard told police he “couldn’t bear to see a woman cut in two.”

6. Balabrega and the Flaming Moths

Swedish conjurer Balabrega was fascinated by an elaborate deception involving six assistants dressed as moths who would appear before being "consumed" by flames. After purchasing the rights to perform the illusion, he traveled to Brazil in June 1900 for a tour. The trick required a supply of gas for the flame, but the theater wasn’t set up for it. Instead, Balabrega substituted acetylene, which immediately ignited during preparation and literally blew the magician and a nearby assistant to pieces.  

7. The Chinese Impostor and the Bullet Catch

Williams Ellsworth Robinson was a turn-of-the-century vaudeville veteran who achieved tremendous fame and success in Europe by pretending to be established Chinese performer Chung Ling Soo. Robinson professed to speak no English, as his exotic routines and persona captivated audiences. Occasionally, Robinson would perform a trick where two rifles were aimed at him and fired. The barrels were supposed to be rigged to not fire real bullets, but his last performance was an anomaly, and the rifles discharged actual ammunition. Only then did audiences understand the extent of his ruse: In perfect English, he shouted, “I’ve been shot!”

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.