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The London Marathon

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After living in Boston for six years, I'm a bit of a marathon snob. Not that I've ever actually done one myself, it's just that getting (or taking) a Monday off to watch and celebrate the world's most respected road race has left a mark. So when I found out that the London Marathon "“ which has only been around since 1981 "“ was on for this weekend, internally, I sort of said, "Meh."


But the London Marathon, sponsored by Flora, a British margarine company, is a pretty important marathon in its own right. It's got its own history, its own tradition, and its own characters, as well as the fact that its course is plotted through some of London's most historic areas, including Embankment, Parliament, and St. James Park (although the Tower of London portion, which crossed some rough cobblestone terrain, has been rerouted).

Here are a few more interesting facts about the London Marathon:

It started with an article

Believe in the power of the press, because it was an article written by former Olympic champion and British journalist Chris Brasher that prompted the organization of the first London Marathon. In 1979, after running the New York marathon, Brasher penned an article for The Observer, describing the experience in joyful terms as the "greatest folk festival the world has ever seen," and summed up by asking if London could ever pull off something like it. (Of course, Brasher's inspiration for running the marathon himself began, as many, many things in the UK do, with a conversation in a pub.)

London "“ or rather Brasher and a few other like-minded sports enthusiasts "“ rose to the challenge. Two years later, after securing £50,000 in financial backing from Gillette, the London Marathon kicked off, with 6,255 runners crossing the finish line.

london-marathon2.jpgThe winners of that first London Marathon were an American, Dick Beardsley, and a Norwegian, Inge Simonsen, who clasped hands at the finish line and crossed together. In the years since, as the race has grown to more than 35,000 runners annually, only one other American male runner has won the race: Moroccan-American Khalid Khannouchi crossed the finish line with a time of 2:05:38 in 2002. In 2006, Deena Kastor became the first American woman to win the race.

The current sponsor is Flora, however, that will change next year, as Virgin, which seems to have a finger in virtually every industry known to man, takes over for a period of five years and with a goal of raising £250 million for charity. Since its inception, the marathon has raised more than £360 million for charity and is in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the world's single largest annual fundraising event.

Celebrity runners

Britain has its own cadre of celebrities and a fair few of them have run the London Marathon. Foul-mouthed celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has run the marathon five times; TV presenter and former official model for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Nell McAndrew, has run the marathon at least twice; actors from long-running Brit soap opera EastEnders are perennial Marathoners, with at least one of them popping up every year; and the late reality TV star Jade Goody ran in 2006.

Tradition! Tradition!

As with many charity driven marathons, fancy dress is a long-standing and essential component. Because when you're panting through your 21st mile, you want to look over and see a banana and a dog skipping past you. Runners in fat suits, runners in kilts, and runners in carefully constructed London telephone booth costumes have all crossed the finish line in recent years; one man has even made a tradition of flipping a cooked pancake in a skillet as he runs.

Some runners have made the London Marathon itself their tradition. The Ever Presents are a dwindling group of die-hards who have managed to run the marathon every single year. A group of roughly 22, they're all men who ran the inaugural London Marathon in 1981, and, despite the cruel passage of time, the loss of hair, teeth and stamina, they're still going.

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For the non-runners, there's a lengthy tradition of drinking. On the interactive course map provided by the marathon organizers, pub locations are handily indicated with a pint glass icon. And there are a lot of pint glasses. Many of the pubs also run marathon specials, raising money and awareness for various charitable causes "“ so while you never really need a reason to drink, a charitable cause is a good one.

Inspiring stories

By their very nature, marathons are events where inspiring things happen, where people push themselves to their limits and far beyond, often in the name of a good cause.

Michael Watson, a former British boxing champion, was nearly killed in the ring in 1991 when the combination of a devastating uppercut to the chin and subsequent unlucky fall into the ropes put him in a coma for 40 days. After he awoke, Watson was confined to a wheelchair, told he'd never walk again, and had to re-learn how to write and speak. But in 2003, Watson "ran" the London Marathon. Raising money for the Brain and Spine Foundation, Watson walked for two hours each morning and each afternoon, completing the course in six days. He slept in a support bus that followed him and that also carried both his neurosurgeon and Chris Eubanks, the boxer who delivered the nearly fatal uppercut.

For his efforts, Queen Elizabeth awarded him an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 2004.

warriors.jpgLast year, six Maasai Warriors ran the marathon, raising awareness about and money for clean drinking water in their rural Tanzanian village. The warriors, who are famed for their ability to run long miles over rough terrain without tiring, said their elders told them that the marathon wouldn't be too difficult a challenge, since they spend their days killing lions and herding cattle (and often fueled by the fresh blood of said cattle). Wearing their traditional clothing and shoes made of old car tires, the warriors finished the race in under 5 and a half hours and raised £114,726; nearly a year after running the marathon, the village now has safe, clean drinking water.


The warriors' visit also prompted a British charity to write up a four-page "guide" for the visiting tribesmen, with helpful hints, such as "Even though some [people on the street] may look like they have a frown on their face, they are very friendly people "“ many of them just work in offices, jobs they don't enjoy, and so they do not smile as much as they should."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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