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Harry Houdini Honored at Manhattan Home for the 90th Anniversary of His Death

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When it comes to figures as famous as Harry Houdini, their legacies are often spread among many places. The magician was born in Hungary, died in Detroit, and in between, spent some time in New York City. On Wednesday, October 26, Houdini's very first Manhattan residence on the Upper East Side honored that connection to the illusionist with a dedication ceremony.

Today, 244 East 79th Street is the site of a restaurant, but decades ago it was home to Mrs. Leffler's Boarding House, where Houdini and his family stayed. Halloween marks the 90th anniversary of Houdini's death, and every year, the Society of American Magicians commemorates the date with a series of events known as Magic Week. Houdini served as president of the Society of American Magicians from 1917 to 1926.

Houdini is buried at Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York and for many years, drew large groups of fans and spectators on Halloween, many of whom sought to continue a tradition of Houdini-seeking séances, encouraged in many ways by the man himself. Before he died, Houdini and his wife Bess agreed on a code phrase that he would use to try to contact her from the afterlife. She held séances for 10 years and never heard from her deceased husband.

In later years, the Society of American Magicians performed more official ceremonies surrounding his death, and moved the date to November to avoid the Halloween crowds. They now keep the event private, and the grave is heavily monitored on the anniversary to prevent vandalism.

As part of the plaque dedication, George Schindler of the Society of American Magicians performed the Broken Wand Ceremony, which is held for every member of the society who dies. During the speech below, the magician's wand, which is given to every member upon joining, is snapped in half.

"...The one we talked with yesterday is silent today. A friend we walked with has gone on without us. We shall miss and remember him. No greater tribute can be paid to anyone than this, and he lives on in the hearts of his friends. Compeer, Houdini. When you were initiated to the Society of American Magicians, you were presented with a wand. This ancient emblem of mystery. It symbolized the magic power that was yours, and you used it with your knowledge of magic secrets, and your skill in their exemplification. Now, its power is gone, it's a mere stick. Devoid of all meaning or authority. Useless without your hand to wield it. Brothers and sisters, compeers, a broken wand symbolizes our submission to the mandate of the Supreme Magician to whom all secrets are known, even of life and death. Into the surety of his love we commit the keeping of our brother.”

In addition to the plaque ceremony, a séance will be held for the first time at Houdini's Manhattan residence this Halloween.

George Schindler with a pair of handcuffs used by Houdini and Houdini's younger brother/fellow magician, Theodore Hardeen.

Photos and the broken wand.

A Houdini display at the ceremony.

The plaque, featuring the name of Deborah Hardeen, the granddaughter of Theodore Hardeen; Deborah was in attendance.
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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”