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The 1956 Magic Trick That Sent BBC Viewers Into a Panic

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Protul Chandra Sorcar, better known as world-traveling stage magician P.C. Sorcar, led his 17-year-old hypnotized assistant to a flat surgical table. As the BBC’s cameras crept in for a closer look, Sorcar secured the young woman to the surface. Above her was a circular buzz saw, big enough to cut through animal carcasses. Sorcar grabbed the handle of the saw, turned it on, and began lowering it toward the girl's belly button.

Sawing a woman in half is the great cliché of magic, a trick repeated tens of thousands of times over hundreds of years. But in 1956, it was uncommon to see the trick performed on live television—and even more unusual that Dipty Dey, Sorcar’s assistant, hadn’t climbed into a box to help disguise the illusion. Her body was in full view of the cameras, and the saw’s descent into her midsection—complete with a squealing motor, like it had met with resistance—was morbidly effective.

As Sorcar’s saw seemed to be passing through Dey’s spine, host Richard Dimbleby stepped in front of the camera and abruptly announced that the show had come to an end. Millions of BBC viewers were left to wonder whether Sorcar, an exotic-looking man clad in a turban, had just killed a woman on live television.

Sorcar’s April 9, 1956 performance on the BBC newsmagazine show Panorama—similar to the one seen in the video above—represented a pivotal time for a number of rising narratives in popular culture. The British, like much of the world, had become enamored with Indian stage performers who marketed themselves by playing up the stereotype of the Indian mystic—one who could summon peculiar abilities from a poorly understood corner of the world. With international travel relatively uncommon in the UK, a visit from a foreign talent was bound to be noticed.

It was also a time when television was continuing the fascination moving pictures had always had with illusionists. From the earliest movies of the late 19th century, cameras sought to capture tricks normally only available to theater crowds. In 1937, the BBC Television Service—which was then relatively new—broadcast a performance by magician Ahmed Hussain, who strolled across hot coals while clad in a turban and sherwani.

While Hussain was planting seeds for Indian illusionists on British television, Sorcar was occupied with appreciative Japanese audiences. Born in 1913 to multiple generations of magicians, Sorcar had embraced his heritage and used his unique ethnicity to travel the world. He could make a car vanish from the stage and copy the handwriting of audience volunteers on a board even though he was blindfolded. (In a sign of the slightly sexist times, he also enjoyed “clipping” the tip of his assistant’s tongue off for the sin of talking too much.)

Sorcar’s successful self-promotion made him a tremendous star in his native India, although he would sometimes regret how convincing his persona had become. Once, a family whose son had been bitten by a venomous snake brought him to Sorcar for healing instead of to a physician. By the time Sorcar convinced them to seek medical treatment, the boy had succumbed to the bite.

While he wasn’t being treated like a faith healer in other parts of the world, Sorcar’s reputation eventually caught the attention of the BBC, which invited him to be featured on Panorama. For Sorcar, it was a perfect bit of serendipity, as he had booked a series of shows to begin at London’s York Theater on April 10. Having a widely televised spot the night before was priceless advertising.

Sorcar began by performing several of his classic tricks, saving the buzz saw for last. As he had done for years, he guided a “hypnotized” Dey onto the table and began to use her body like a piece of lumber, severing her torso in half with the frightening roar of the saw. Abruptly, Dimbleby broke in to quickly bid viewers goodnight.

To the home viewer, it had appeared as though something had gone horrifically wrong. In less enlightened times, the mystique of foreign performers could sometimes give way to suspicion. Was Sorcar an uncivilized brute? Had he ineptly sliced a woman to ribbons, forcing the BBC to cut away from the carnage before the cameras were splashed with blood?

As soon as the program ended, the channel was flooded with calls inquiring about Dey’s well-being. So many queries came in that the BBC began to divert them to a designated operator who could counsel viewers on the magician’s capabilities.

Later that night, an unprecedented decision was made: The BBC’s late-night newscast would set aside a moment to assure viewers that Dey had not been dismembered. It might be the first and only time a news program was forced to report a magic trick had gone exactly as planned.

Left unsaid was why the network had cut away from the trick so suddenly. The next day, UK newspapers blared headlines like, “Did Magician Kill the Girl?”

Soham Banerjee via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Dey was fine, of course. She would go on to be disassembled and repaired night after night during Sorcar’s York Theater run. Many attendees, in fact, paid for tickets just for visual proof that Dey was still among the living.

Dimbleby had cut off the broadcast for a simple reason. Time had expired on the show, and the BBC refused to accommodate programs that ran long. To the network, Sorcar had simply bumbled by mismanaging his allotted time. It was sheer good fortune that it had resulted in his York shows being fueled by the ensuing publicity.

Sorcar probably enjoyed a private laugh over this explanation. An established performer and master marketer, he knew precisely how much time was left in the program and understood that there would be no opportunity to finish the trick with Dey. By seemingly leaving her in pieces, his visibility would rise exponentially in the British press. The trick was not only successful, but flawlessly executed. He would perform the same illusion in the U.S. on NBC the following year, riding the wave of publicity his British controversy had started.

Sorcar would go on to tour for another decade and a half, regarded as one of the best magicians of his era. When he suffered a heart attack in 1971 shortly after a performance in Japan, some wondered whether it was another stunt. Sadly, it wasn’t. Sorcar was dead at the age of 57, leaving behind a son, P.C. Sorcar, Junior, who continued the family business.

Much later, the younger Sorcar would recount the BBC duplicity, laughing at the idea that his father, who made his living by knowing what was happening every second he was on stage, could have misjudged the clock. To a magician, timing is everything. And P.C. Sorcar had known just when to leave them wanting more.

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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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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.

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