CLOSE
Original image

Catching Up With 6 Exercise Gurus

Original image

Last month, the Broadway community hosted its 23rd Annual Easter Bonnet Competition to raise funds for AIDS research. One of the celebrity performers was 71-year-old Jane Fonda clad in 1980s-era workout togs. Even though Ms. Jane was not all she appeared to be during her home video heyday, she inspired us to salute some other famous exercise gurus in her honor.

1. Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda had a checkered career once she entered the public eye. She worked as a fashion model before landing her first film role. She gained the reputation as a "sex symbol" after co-starring in the sci-fi spoof Barbarella, and then she used her celebrity to support North Vietnam during that controversial war. Scrambling to get her career back in gear after a barrage of negative press, she worked in a series of "relevant" films, including The China Syndrome. Fonda fractured her foot during the filming, which not only delayed the production, but also curtailed the regular ballet routines she used to keep fit. She discovered the world of aerobic exercise, and soon became its leading proponent.


Her initial Jane Fonda's Workout video sold an unprecedented 17 million copies (mind you, this was at a time when VCRs still retailed for close to $1,000 and were considered a luxury item). Fonda would confess, years after a dozen different versions of her workout had been marketed, that her enviable figure was not strictly due to "feeling the burn" "“ she had suffered from bulimia during that time and had also undergone cosmetic surgery.

2. Richard Simmons

richard-simmons.jpgMilton Teagle "Richard" Simmons was always chunky as a child; when he graduated from high school he weighed 268 lbs. Nevertheless, he'd achieved a small bit of TV success, mostly as the "before" model in yogurt commercials and as a model for "chubby" jeans. When he was warned by a doctor about the medical complications of being overweight he went on an extreme starvation diet, shedding 112 lbs. in three months. As a result, he lost a lot of hair (and later underwent transplants) and his skin sagged (nip and tuck time). But he also decided that there were probably thousands of people just like him who needed to exercise regularly, but were too intimated by the Danskin-clad hardbodies who frequented most commercial gyms. In 1975 he opened Ruffage and the Anatomy Asylum in Beverly Hills, a combination health food restaurant/exercise studio. And while today the fey, cloying Richard Simmons is easy pickings for talk show hosts and stand-up comics, there is no denying that he has encouraged hundreds of thousands of non-Jane Fonda types to get up off of the sofa for the first time and sweat along with him.

3. Debbie Drake

Who was the first woman to don a leotard and host an exercise show on television? Even though it was way back in 1961, the concept wasn't very different than it is today: attractive woman wears a form-fitting outfit and stretches sinuously on camera. Debbie Drake was a blonde, leggy Texan whose 15-minute program, Passport to Beauty, aired at 7:30AM in most markets, and she was popular enough to get housewives to do calisthenics with her at that hour. Her trademark was a long-sleeved leotard with a small white collar, which gave it a touch of modesty.

Drake was a shrewd businesswoman who used a three-pronged attack to capture the exercise market: in addition to her TV show, she published books and released record albums. Her strategy to encourage women to buy her products: "How to keep your husband by way of perfecting your figure." Speaking of figures, Debbie's measured 38 _-22-36, which she emphasized by having her bosom cinched up to her neck during her workout routine.

4. Jack LaLanne

Younger TV viewers may only know him as an infomercial huckster, but Jack LaLanne first gained fame via his TV exercise show that ran for 34 years. LaLanne opened his first gym in 1936, where he encouraged weight training for both men and women and also developed the first leg extension machine. He practiced what he preached; throughout his life he emphasized the importance of eating natural foods ("if man made it, don't eat it") as well as both aerobic and weight-bearing exercises. Some of his exercises may look goofy today (such as this face routine in the videos below), but on the other hand, today's 94-year-old Jack has a face that looks like 30-year-old Jack.

5. Denise Austin

denise-austin.jpg
Denise (Katnich) Austin earned a gymnastics scholarship to the University of Arizona, where she graduated from in 1979 with a degree in exercise physiology. After graduation she started teaching aerobics classes in the L.A. area and was eventually hired to co-host Jack LaLanne's TV show. In 1982 she was offered her own TV fitness show, and her career took off from there. It certainly didn't hurt that she'd married sports attorney Jeff Austin, who also happened to be the brother of tennis pro Tracy Austin. Once fame came knocking at her door, she had an expert in the family ready to advise and guide her.

6. Cynthia Kereluk

Once a part of Lifetime TV's regular morning line-up, Cynthia Kereluk's soft voice was a soothing counterpoint to Denise Austin's raspy growl. Kereluk had a college degree in education (she taught kindergarten before pursuing a career in fitness), and was Miss Canada in 1984. From 1985 until 2000, she hosted the Everyday Workout which was seen in TV markets around the world. Cynthia recently married her long-time love Paul Rodgers, formerly the frontman of Free and Bad Company.

I'm not so naïve to think that all viewers that tune in to exercise shows are doing so strictly for the cardio benefits. After my 70-something father suffered a heart attack, he was instructed by his doctor to engage in daily aerobic activity. To Dad that meant tuning in to a variety of exercise programs and critiquing them from his La-Z-Boy. ("This show is nothing but old broads, no one wants to see that"¦") So "˜fess up "“ which exercise shows do you recall, either because you actually worked out to them, or because you liked the way their leotards rode up"¦?

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
arrow
science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
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]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
SECTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES