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9 People Who Refused to be Limited

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It's part of human nature to test one's limits, even for those who have extraordinary limitations. All over the world there are people with disabilities who work to do exactly what they are not supposed to be able to do. This is the fourth article in a series about people who set their goals and achieved them despite disabilities.

Amputee Wrestler

Kyle Maynard was born missing the biggest parts of his arms and legs due to congental amputation, a condition in which the limbs are constricted and die due to lack of oxygen in utero. Yet he became a grade school football player and then a wrestler. Maynard's high school record in wrestling was 35 wins and 16 losses. He now wrestles for  the University of Georgia, where he is majoring in broadcast news. Maynard won an ESPY Award in 2004 for the Best Athlete With A Disability. See him in action in this video, and watch as Maynard talks about his life. His autobiography is called No Excuses: The True Story of a Congenital Amputee Who Became a Champion in Wrestling and in Life.

Painting from the Imagination


Turkish artist Esref Armagan was born blind, and has never seen any of the things he paints. He received no formal training or even encouragement, but developed his own unique techniques. Armagan paints with his fingers, using mostly oil paint, one color at a time. Each color is left to dry completely before he moves on to the next. See a video report on Armagan.

Man in Motion


Rick Hansen participated in several different sports before a 1973 traffic accident in which he was thrown from the back of a truck left him a paraplegic. He was 15 years old at the time. He returned to sports after rehabilitation and went on to lead his wheelchair basketball team, the Vancouver Cablecars, to six Canadian national championships. Hansen also became the first disabled person to graduate with a degree in physical education from the University of British Columbia. He then turned his focus from basketball to to marathons. He won wheelchair marathon medals at the 1980 and 1984 Paralympics, the 1982 Pan Am Games, and several world championships. But his biggest marathon was not a competition. Hansen wheeled himself around the world from in the Man in Motion World Tour to raise funds for spinal cord injury research and to advocate for accessibility. The trip took over two years and raised $26 million dollars. To continue his advocacy, he founded the Rick Hansen Foundation to improve the quality of life for victims of spinal cord injuries.

Autistic Orator


The story of Jason McElwain appears to be about sports, but his achievements go way beyond basketball. McElwain gained fame in 2006 when his coach put the autistic team manager in the last game of the year as a player. He scored 20 points and became a local hero and nationwide sensation. McElwain's ongoing achievements are his numerous public appearances and speaking engagements aimed at bringing recognition to autism -exactly the kind of thing that is so difficult for someone with autism.

The Comeback Kid


Italian racer Alex Zanardi made careers in both CART and Formula One racing. In September of 2001, he was leading a race when a near-fatal accident caused him to lose both legs above the knee. Rather than retire, Zanardi designed his own prosthetic legs. By 2003 he was racing again with a car modified with a hand-controlled accelerator and brakes, and was racing full time again by 2005. The story is told in his autobiography Alex Zanardi: My Sweetest Victory : A Memoir of Racing Success, Adversity, and Courage.

Blind Skateboarder


High school student Tommy Carroll was born with bilateral retinoblastoma. His eyes were removed when he was two years old. He competes on his school's cross-country team, running while holding the arm of a teammate. Swimming, wrestling, and skiing are some of his other activities. Carroll is a skateboarding whiz, too! He negotiates skate parks by staying in tune with the sound and feel of the skateboard against the pavement. See Carroll in action in this video. Oh yeah, he's an honor student, too.

One-armed Table Tennis


Polish table tennis player Natalia Partyka was one of only two amputees who competed in the Olympic games in Beijing last month (the other was swimmer Natalie DuToit). Born in 1989 without a right hand or forearm, she competed in the 2000 and 2004 Paralympics, winning a gold and silver medal in 2004. Partyka has won many international competitions for disabled players, plus two gold medals at the European Championships for Cadets in 2004 -a tournament for able-bodied players. She returns to beijing to compete in the 2008 Paralympics this week.

Iron Woman


Kelly Bruno was born with a birth defect affecting her right leg, which was amputated when she was six months old. With a prosthetic leg, she began walking as the same age as other children, and began running track events in the eighth grade. Bruno began competing in triathlons as a student at Duke University, including Iron Man events. She graduated this past spring and plans to attend medical school. Bruno recently worked as a ball girl at the US Open in order to bring publicity to disabled athletes. Her autobiography is called Challenged on Both Sides of the Finish Line. You can follow her activities on her blog.

Marathoner of Hope


Terry Fox was diagnosed with bone cancer as a teenager. His right leg was amputated in 1977. During his treatment, Fox was touched by the plight of other cancer patients, especially children, and wanted to help them somehow. He decided to run across Canada to raise money for cancer research. After 18 months of training, he began his Marathon of Hope in Newfoundland on April 12th, 1980. He ran 26 miles a day on his prosthetic leg, raising awareness and donations as he went. Fox ran for 143 days and over 3,000 miles (5,373 kilometers) when he was forced to stop because the cancer had recurred. By then he had become famous for his attempt, and Canadians were stunned to see him stop running. Terry Fox died in 1981 at age 22. But his fund raising efforts were not in vain, as the Terry Fox Foundation was organized in his honor to raise money for the National Cancer Institute of Canada. The annual Terry Fox Run is held in locations all over the world to continue his legacy of running to benefit cancer research. This year's event will be on Sunday, September 14th.

Previous articles in this series are 9 People Who Did It Anyway, 9 People Who Knew They Could Do It, and Swimming Without Legs. This article brings the total to 30 people.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]