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10 Things You Might Not Know About Nelson Mandela

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Nelson Mandela passed away today at the age of 95. Most of us are pretty familiar with his imprisonment and anti-Apartheid work; here are a few things you might not have known.

1. Mandela's prison number was 46664. The number stems from the fact that he was the 466th prisoner of 1964. He has since embraced the number, making it the name of his HIV/AIDS awareness campaign and the name of a series of charity concerts benefiting said charity.

2. Mandela and his cousin Justice ran away from home in 1941 to avoid arranged marriages.

3. He finally did get to marry for love in 1944, to Evelyn Mase, but it was soon marred by tragedy. Their second child, Makaziwe, died at just nine months old. The couple named their second daughter after the first one. They had two other children: Madiba Thembekile (Thembi), who died in a car crash while Mandela was in prison in 1969, and Makgatho Lewanika, who died of AIDS in 2005. Mandela had two other children with second wife Winnie. He also has 20 grandkids and "a growing number" of great-grandchildren.

4. In November 2009, the United Nations General Assembly declared July 18 "Mandela Day." It's his birthday, but it's also a national celebration and recognition of Mandela's contributions to freedom.

5. Mandela's inauguration as President of South Africa in 1994 was historic for at least four reasons (and probably many more). First of all, he was the first democratically-elected president of South Africa ever. He was also the first black president to be elected in South Africa, and the oldest president to be elected. Finally, his inauguration united the largest number of Heads of State since JFK's funeral in 1963.

6. Is a Mandela by any other name as sweet? I'm going to go with "yes" on that one. Mandela's birth name wasn't really Nelson—it was Rolihlahla, which his school teachers were unable to pronounce. One of them started calling him Nelson after British admiral Horatio Nelson. Apparently everyone else thought that was easier to say than "Rolihlahla" too, because the name obviously stuck. Rolihlahla, by the way, means "pulling the branch of a tree."

7. South Africans commonly call Mandela "mkhulu" (grandfather), or Madiba, the Mandela family name for a respected elder.

8. One of Mandela's most famous quotes isn't really his quote. You may have heard it—it's often cited as a quote from his 1994 inaugural speech:

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure ... As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

This is actually a quote by author and spiritual activist Marianne Williamson in her book A Return to Love. Not only did Mandela not coin the quote himself, he probably never even said it. "As far as I know, he has never used the quote in any of his speeches," said Razia Saleh, an archivist at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, "and we have catalogued about 1000 thus far."

9. He received more than 695 awards, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.

10. Mandela was a guy people like to honor (as if the 695 awards didn't prove it). More than 25 schools, universities and educational institutions have been named after Nelson Mandela. At least 19 scholarships and foundations bear his name. He was awarded in the vicinity of 115 honorary degrees and more than 95 sculptures, statues, or pieces of art have been made of him or dedicated to him.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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