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9 People Who Did It Anyway

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When you tell someone they can't do something, it often serves as a motivation to prove you're wrong, and disabled people are no exception. Of course, that's not the only reason they do exactly what they are supposedly not able to do. Some want to prove their abilities to themselves only, some want to set an example or help others, some do what they are good at, and some just do what they love.

Dustin Carter

Dustin Carter contracted a blood disease that cost him parts of all four limb when he was very young. In the eighth grade, he joined the school wrestling team, although no one expected him to excel. And he didn't for a long time. But hard work and discipline paid off in his senior year. Last month, Carter represented his school at the Ohio state wrestling championships. He placed in the top 16 of his weight class. Watch Carter wrestle in this video.

Lacey Henderson

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Lacey Henderson's right leg was amputated when she was nine years old due to a tumor in her kneecap. But at her mother's suggestion, she tried out to become a cheerleader in high school. Not only did she make the team, but she worked her way up to captain! Now she's 18 and cheers for the University of Denver.

Eli Bowen

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Eli Bowen was born in 1844 with feet attached directly to his pelvis. In other words, he had no legs. He developed strong arms doing farm work and training to start the career of his dreams. At age 13, he became a professional acrobat! His acrobatic act showcased his strength, but he was also known for his handsome appearance. Although he became wealthy, he never retired, continuing to perform until his death in 1924.

Dave Heeley

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Dave Heeley was born visually impaired, but his eyesight deteriorated further until he was classified as blind in his twenties. Now 50, Heeley will take up the Seven Magnificent Marathons challenge and run marathons on seven continents in seven days. April 7th through the 13th, Dave and his sighted running partner Malcolm Carr will run in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, Santiago, Los Angeles, Sydney, Dubai, Tunis, and London. Heeley is in it for his favorite cause, The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association.

Erik Weihenmayer

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Erik Weihenmayer lost his vision when he was 13 years old. He went on to become a middle school teacher, a wrestling coach, and a world-class athlete. In 2001, Weihenmayer became the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest. The next year, he completed the Seven Summits -the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. Weihenmayer is leading others, too. In 2004 he took a group of blind Tibetans up a Himalayan peak, an adventure that was recorded in a documentary called Blindsight. (image credit: Jonathan Chester)

Ludwig von Beethoven

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Ludwig von Beethoven became deaf gradually, beginning in his twenties. He considered it a great tragedy and shame, and was loathe to admit it to those around him. He was profoundly deaf by his mid-forties, but kept composing using a rod to transfer sound from a piano to his jaw.

Porter Ellett

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Porter Ellett of Bicknell, Utah lost his arm in an accident when he was four years old. He became a star basketball player for Wayne High School, leading the team to the state playoffs. But that's not all, he also plays on the baseball team and runs track, too! See a video report here.

Mark Goffeney

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Mark Goffeney was born without arms, but always wanted to be a musician. He started out playing trombone, but realized his calling in playing guitar with his feet. He founded the band Big Toe in 1992. You can hear music and see videos of Goffeney's performances at his MySpace page. (image credit: jason@seejasonsphotos.com)

John Bramblitt

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John Bramblitt became blind gradually, possibly due to a seizure disorder. He didn't realize how bad his vision had become until he was past legally blind. Bramblitt never painted before he lost his sight. He admits it "seemed a way of shoving my disability right back in the face of God, or nature, or whatever." Now a graduate of the University of North Texas, Bramblitt is set to attend Toulouse School of Graduate Studies. A video report on his art won the 2007 YouTube Award last week in the Inspirational category.

What is most impressive about these stories of uncommon people is how common they are. The majority of the stories here have been in the news very recently. Each is one more step in changing the world's perception of the disabled.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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