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9 People Who Knew They Could Do It

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The wonderful response and suggested additions to the post 9 People Who Did It Anyway led me to explore more people who could've taken the easy way out due to disabilities, but instead followed their passions.

The Teenage Amputee Explorer

Janek Mela is a double amputee from Gdansk, Poland who became the youngest person to reach the North Pole, and then the South Pole. Born in 1988, Mela was 13 years old when he was electrocuted in a transformer building. His left arm and right leg were so damaged they had to be amputated. In April of 2004, Mela accompanied polar explorer Marek Kamiński on a 70 kilometer walk from Spitsbergen, Norway to the North Pole. On December 31st of the same year, the two reached the South Pole. Mela had turned 16 years old the day before. See photos of the expeditions at Kamiński's website.

Major League Southpaw

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Jim Abbott was born in Michigan in 1967 without a right hand, but he played professional baseball for ten years. Abbott was a star pitcher in high school and led the football team to a state championship as quarterback. He was drafted by the major leagues in 1985, but elected to go to college instead. At the University of Michigan, he won the Sullivan Award for the best amateur athlete (in any sport) in 1987. Abbott pitched for the US team in the 1988 Olympics, winning a gold medal. As a pro, he played for the California Angels, the Chicago White Sox, and the New York Yankees. Abbott was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007. He is now a motivational speaker.

Legs on Everest

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Mark Inglis was a search and rescue officer for the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park in New Zealand. In 1982, he and a partner were stuck in an ice cave for 13 days during a blizzard. After rescue, his badly frostbitten legs were amputated. Inglis eventually returned to mountain climbing, and in May of 2006 was the first double amputee to climb to the peak of Mount Everest. Inglis' Everest expedition helped to support The Cambodian Trust, an organization to help the polio and landmine victims of Cambodia. He and his wife Anne later founded Limbs 4 All to help amputees worldwide.

One-Armed Guitar Idol

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Mark Playle of the band Minnikin is a guitar player who made it to the finals of the Guitar Idol contest earlier this year in London. Playle was born without a lower left arm. Watch a video of Playle playing.

The Blind Governor

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David Paterson is legally blind due to an infection in infancy, although he has some limited vision in his right eye. His parents insisted he be mainstreamed with sighted students, and even moved to a new school district for the opportunity. He graduated from high school in three years, then went on to complete law school in 1983. Only two years later, Paterson was elected to the New York state senate. In 2006, he was elected New York's first African-American lieutenant governor, then became governor upon Eliot Spitzer's resignation earlier this year. Paterson is an athlete, too -he ran the New York Marathon in 1999, and is on the board of the Achilles Track Club, an organization devoted to mainstream sports participation for the disabled.

Climb Every Mountain

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Australian activist and adventurer Warren McDonald was climbing a mountain in 1997 when a large boulder pinned him down. It took two days for a rescue helicopter to reach him, and both legs had to be amputated at mid-thigh. Only ten months later, he was climbing mountains again! Since then, he's climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, El Capitan, and the frozen waterfall known as the Weeping Wall in Alberta, Canada. McDonald wrote a book about his experiences, entitled A Test of Will. He makes his living as a motivational speaker.

Gyspy Music on Two Fingers

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Django Reinhardt was a reknowned jazz guitarist from Belgium. Born in 1910, he was raised in a gypsy camp and played guitar, banjo, and violin beginning in childhood. When he was 18 years old, a fire damaged the third and fourth fingers of his left hand. His leg was hurt so badly that doctors wanted to amputate, but Reinhardt refused, and walked again within a year. His fingers remained paralyzed, so his guitar solos were played with only two fingers. He could still use the paralyzed fingers for chords. Reinhardt recorded eighteen albums and toured Europe and America with various bands until he retired in 1951.

Quadriplegic Sailor

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36-year-old Hilary Lister is paralyzed from the neck down, but that hasn't stopped her from participating in her love of sailing. In 2005, she became the first quadriplegic sailor to cross the English Channel. Her next goal is to sail around Britain solo, using her breath to pilot a 20-foot boat. She began her trip on June 16th from Dover aboard the Artemus 20. In a series of day sails, the journey will take several months. You can follow her progress on her website. Lister became paralyzed seven years ago due to reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a progressive degenerative disease.

The Sound of One Arm Drumming

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Drummer Rick Allen was only 15 years old when he joined the British band Def Leppard in 1978. By 1984, the group was playing huge tours and selling tons of albums. On New Years Eve, Allen's Corvette crashed into a stone wall in Sheffield and he lost his left arm. The other band members never considered replacing him. The Simmons electronic drum company worked with Allen to develop a custom drum kit he could play with two feet and one arm. He returned to the stage with Def Leppard in 1986. Allen and his wife Lauren Munroe founded Raven Drum, a charitable organization with a mission to "educate, support and empower veterans and all trauma survivors."

See also: 9 People Who Did It Anyway and Swimming Without Legs

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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