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8 Amazingly Abled Athletes and Artists

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A few people who are missing a limb, or one of the senses, or have some other physical anomaly are notable for achievements in the very area in which they were supposedly restricted. Usually this has little to do with proving something to the world, and is often a case of someone beginning or continuing an activity they truly love and enjoy. They just don't see any reason not to. However, such unique achievements are likely to make the news. A couple of years ago I wrote a series of posts about people some would consider disabled, but who are noted for surprising pursuits. Since then, I've encountered more inspiring stories for you.

1. Adam Bender

Adam Bender of Lexington, Kentucky was born with a tumor in his leg, which was amputated when he was one year old. Bender plays soccer and football, but his favorite sport is baseball. He tried using a prosthetic leg, but decided it slowed him down. Bender uses crutches to run the bases. His family was inspired to create the Adam Bender Foundation to encourage physically challenged children and cancer survivors to participate in mainstream team sports. See Bender in action in this video.

2. Alistair Hodgson

British soldier Alistair Hodgson was 21 years old and a member of the elite Parachute Regiment when he encountered a bomb in Northern Ireland. The blast destroyed his legs and left him severely wounded. That was 17 years ago. Now Hodgson is the British National Freestyle Skydiving ­Champion. Besides training in his sport and coaching other skydivers, Hodgson works to inspire other disabled vets returning from Afghanistan. Hodgson will compete against able-bodied skydivers for the world championship in August.

3. Lance Blair

In 1988, 18-year-old Lance Blair lost his lower left leg in a horrific vehicle crash.  He was expected to die from his injuries, but instead spent two months in intensive care and six months in therapy. With a prosthetic leg (actually a series of legs as he wore them out), Blair set out on adventures: hiking the Andes, plunging into the jungle, and extensive world travel. He saw constant obstacles that kept other disabled persons from enjoying the life he did, so he founded the organization Disabled Explorers. Blair invested heavily in converted vehicles and specialized equipment and funds excursions into the wilderness for returning amputee and paraplegic soldiers and others who want the opportunity to explore the world -and have fun.

4. Bill Clements

Bill Clements of Kalamazoo, Michigan began playing bass guitar when he was 13. When an industrial accident severed his right hand and forearm in 1989, he didn't consider giving up his passion. Clements developed his own technique for playing bass with a prosthetic. You can hear some of his music on YouTube.

5. Og De Souza

Brazilian Og De Souza didn't set out to become a professional skateboarder. His legs stopped developing when he was young, and he used a skateboard to get around in lieu of a wheelchair. However, with practice he perfected routines and stunts until he became a sensation in skateboarding circles. See him in action in several YouTube videos.

6. Sheila Radziewicz

Sheila Radziewicz was born with thrombocytopenia-absent radius (TAR) syndrome. She lacks arm bones but has hands, and her legs were missing kneecaps. Years of leg braces and several rounds of surgery enabled her to walk. Radziewicz, now 32 years old, has been taking martial arts classes for three years. This month she will test for a black belt in Taikwando, despite having no arms. Radziewicz also works as an advocate for domestic violence victims.

7. Sean Swarner

Sean Swarner is a cancer survivor who climbed the peak of Mt. Everest. When he was 13 years old, Swarner was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease. At 16, he was stricken with Askin's sarcoma, a completely separate variety of cancer. Swarner was near death when doctors removed a tumor and a large part of one lung. His restricted lung capacity made the Everest expedition all the more remarkable. He reached the summit on May 16, 2002. Swarner and his brother Seth founded the Cancer Climber organization to inspire cancer patients and encourage survivors to take up climbing and other outdoor activities.

8. Nick Gatto

Nick Gatto is a professional football player who has only half a right arm. His upper arm stopped developing before birth. In high school. Gatto participated in baseball, basketball, football, track, and every other sport offered. He kicked for Blinn Junior College and for Arkansas State University. Gatto joined the Arena Football League in 2002 where he kicked and played defense for various franchises through 2009. He founded a kicking and punting school for all ages in Houston, where he coaches.

For more stories, see the five previous articles on this subject:

9 People Who Did It Anyway

9 People Who Knew They Could Do It

9 People Who Refused to be Limited

Swimming Without Legs: 3 Inspiring Athletes

Dancing on Crutches

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]