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Dispatches from Afghanistan Sam: The Fastest Girl in Kabul

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One of the fastest people in Afghanistan runs like a girl -- and if everything works out, 19-year-old Mehbooba Andyar, the only Afghan woman scheduled to compete in this year's Olympics, will soon have the chance to prove she's one of the fastest in the world. But whether she wins or loses in Beijing, her biggest challenge lies not in the stadium but back home, where she faces fierce cultural disapproval -- and even death threats -- for stepping outside the traditional role of women in Afghan society to compete.

Sam French, our very own Man in Afghanistan, braved some cultural disapproval of his own -- including a truckload of angry cops wielding AK-47s -- to get the story. This is Sam's tale, and the terrific short documentary that he and French filmmakers Louis Meunier and Jerome Veyret made about it.

mehbooba.jpgOnly 19 years old, Mehbooba Andyar has always dreamed of representing Afghanistan at the Olympics. This year, in Beijing, her dreams will be realized when she competes in the 1500 meter and 800 meter track and field events at the 2008 Olympic games. Her story is remarkable in a country where women generally don't show their faces outside of the home, let alone attempt to compete on the world stage at the Olympics with billions of people watching. When she competes in Beijing, under the Afghan Olympic Committee's rules, she must wear clothes which cover her entire body, as well as a black headscarf. Needless to say, this will hamper her style a bit.

Her family has faced intimidation and even death threats over her decision to compete. She can barely step outside for fear she will be accosted, verbally abused, or worse. Because of such fierce cultural disapproval, she trains outside of her house, on a rutted mud street, at dusk, when her neighbors are all inside their houses watching the latest soap operas imported from India (in which, I might add, the women inevitably bare their bellies in revealing sarongs).

IMG_2467.JPG.jpgMehbooba's family, like most of the poor residents of Kabul, live on the hills which surround the city, in concrete or packed earth dwellings, where they can avoid the zoning laws. They are under constant threat by those who disapprove of Mehbooba's quest, and fearing for their lives, have been forced to move multiple times. But despite everything, her family wanted her story told.

Louis and I arrived late in the afternoon, our taxi taking us up muddy streets flowing with sewer water, past children playing pickup soccer and herds of sheep munching on trash. Mehbooba greeted us warmly, and ushered us into sit with the family for tea. Nothing is done in this country without tea -- it is the oil of social discourse. Mehbooba served us with grace, only a slight tremor while pouring betraying her nervousness.

We dared not film anything until the rituals had been observed. Afghans put great stock in hospitality. And so, while the light was rapidly disappearing, we left our cameras in their bags and made small talk, haltingly, through our translator. We finally managed to get some footage, but all too soon, it was time for dinner, and the light had nearly disappeared. Apparently, in addition to training for the Olympics, it's still Mehbooba's job to cook dinner for her family "“ father, mother, brother, and younger sister. I took the camera and filmed some b-roll of her stirring a vegetable soup, bent over a small gas camping stove, illuminated only by its tiny flame.

After serving her family, she left her food uneaten and stepped outside. It was time to train. At this point, the sun had set. Alone, lit by the sodium vapor light of a single streetlamp, she limbered up and prepared to run.

Suddenly, headlights pierced the darkness. A 4X4 lumbered up the dirt track and slid to a stop in a cloud of dust in front of us. It was the police. Another 4X4 appeared behind us. Six policemen, each carrying an AK-47, stepped out of the two vehicles and surrounded us. One of them grabbed our camera and threw it into the back of his vehicle as their leader started yelling at us in Dari. I didn't know what was going on. All I knew was that there were six angry men gesturing at us with guns.

Mehbooba's father ran out of the house and started yelling at the policemen. They gestured at Mehbooba, and one of them grabbed her and roughly dragged her back inside the house. One of them waved his gun and shouted a question at me. Our translator leaned close, whispering to me that they wanted to know why we were filming. We told him to tell them that we had authorization from Jekdalek, the president of the Afghan Olympic Committee. He relayed this, which provoked a more intense bout of yelling and waving of guns. The translator shook his head. They tell me that you are filming a porno, he said.

Apparently, one of the neighbors, in a righteous rage that Mehbooba was stepping outside of her place, had called the police, who were all too happy to believe that the only reason two foreigners with cameras would be in a woman's home was to film pornography. They yelled at us for two hours, standing on the dusty street, under the light of that single streetlamp. During the course of this barrage, none of which I understood, the neighbors had all finished dinner and come outside, ringing us with hostile faces. They all seemed to think that we were sex-addled foreign sickos, there to take advantage of their women. When the cops finally herded us to their vehicles, I was all too happy to get out of there.

At the station, the police chief asked to see ID. Louis pulled out his ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) press badge, which seemed to convince him that we were not pornographers. Our translator breathed a sigh of relief as we were unceremoniously shown the door. He said that if he had not been with us, he would have been beaten and thrown in jail.

In fact, to our great chagrin, we subsequently learned that the police returned the house, arrested Mehbooba's father, and did exactly that. He was in jail for three days before being released. Because of us, her family had to move once again.

But her father implored us to continue filming. He wanted the world to know that his daughter would not be beaten by threats and intimidation. And so, over the next few days, we filmed Mehbooba training at the stadium, eating lunch with her fellow athletes, and talking about her struggle to compete. She seemed eager to talk to us, and even though her family bore the brunt of the punishment for our transgression, she apologized profusely and often for what happened. I think she was ashamed of her countrymen, and more determined than ever to show the world that she deserved to be in Beijing.

Even though she will never win any medals (she is a full minute slower than the fastest time in the 1500 meters), Mehbooba has already won by choosing to compete in the face of such cultural pressure. I believe she is a tribute to her country, and as I watched her run around the track at Ghazi stadium, where the Taliban used to execute women for adultery, I felt a sense of hope surge inside of me. When she competes in August, I hope the world watches her and feels the way I do: that where there is oppression and bigotry, there will be people like Mehbooba Ahdyar, who illuminate the world with their courage.

UPDATE: on July 4, 2008, Mehbooba fled from her hotel room in Italy, where she was training in preparation for the Olympic games. She is currently seeking asylum in Norway, fearful that her family will be killed should she compete. In a cruel twist of fate, however, the Afghan Olympic Committee has threatened to imprison Mehbooba's family if she doesn't return to compete; an impossible choice.

This is their short documentary about Mehbooba.

Timeline: Afghanistan at the Olympics

1980: The US and other nations boycott the summer games in Moscow because of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Afghanistan sends a team which is handpicked by the Soviet forces. Most of the real athletes have joined the Mujahadeen, including the current Afghanistan Olympic Committee president, Jekdalek.

1984: Afghanistan, under Communist rule, boycotts the summer games in Los Angeles.

1988: Afghanistan competes in Seoul, but wins no medals.

1992: Afghanistan does not compete in Barcelona.

1996: Afghanistan sends two athletes to Atlanta. One, boxer Mohammad Aman, fails to appear at a mandatory weigh-in and is disqualified. The other, Marathoner Abdul Wasiqi, hurts his hamstring and finishes last.

2000: Afghanistan is banned by the IOC from competing in Sydney because the Taliban placed too many restrictions on the athletes "“ they could not wear shorts, they could not shave (which disqualified the boxers) and they did not allow women to compete.

2004: Afghanistan sends five athletes to compete in Athens. Among them are Robina Muqim Yaar (100 meter runner) and Friba Rezihi (judo), who are the first two women from Afghanistan ever sent to the Olympic games. Afghanistan wins no medals.

Check out Sam's first dispatch here, or email him at sam at samfrench dot com.

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]