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10 People Who Did It Anyway

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The news that quadruple amputee Philippe Croizon swam the English Channel over the weekend reminded me of so many people I've written about, that I had to look in my files and bring you another inspirational list of people who are labeled as disabled in one way or another, but who still accomplished exactly what they were not supposed to be able to do.

1. Tom Willis

Tom Willis is a motivational speaker from San Diego who has no arms. He has a small appendage on his left side resembling a partial hand, but not on his right side. Willis arranged to throw out the first pitch at a 2008 San Diego Padres game through the TV station that broadcast the games. He pitched right across the plate with his foot and drew national attention. That experience led to Willis' ambition to throw out a first pitch at every major league baseball stadium. The Pitch for Awareness National Tour takes Willis to different cities where he offers his motivational program to schools and civic organizations. He's pitched at ten stadiums so far this year, and is scheduled next at the Texas Rangers game on September 30th.

2. Gabe Marsh

Ed and Ann Marsh of Guntersville, Alabama have birthed, adopted, or fostered 60 children altogether. Ann Marsh taught them all to swim for their own safety, and saw many of them on the Guntersville swim team. Then in 2004, they took home newborn Gabe, who had no legs and only one full arm. But Gabe wanted to swim like the rest of the kids, so at age five he jumped in with them -and swam! Now six years old, Gabe swims on the local team like his siblings. And he's gaining speed with every meet.

3. Cody McCasland

Cody McCasland was delivered prematurely in 2001 missing several bones in his legs, and had other birth defects as well. He was not expected to live for more than a few days. Cody underwent multiple surgeries to correct defects in his organs and limbs. His legs were amputated in 2003. That same afternoon, Cody was caught trying to walk on his stumps! He was fitted with prosthetic legs and learned to walk immediately -and never looked back. He started using running prosthetics at age five. Cody runs, swims, plays games, and competes in athletic competitions. He's won gold medals for both swimming and running, and hopes to represent the US in the Paralympic Games someday. At just short of nine years old, Cody is also busy speaking to groups about limb differences and promotes the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

4. Josh Sundquist

Josh Sundquist was nine when his left leg was amputated due to bone cancer. He took up skiing at age 13, and was a member of the 2006 U.S. Paralympic Ski Team. Sundquist is also the founder of a social networking site for amputees, LessThanFour.org. His book, Just Don't Fall: How I Grew Up, Conquered Illness, and Made it Down the Mountain, became a best seller when it was released earlier this year. But that's not all: Sundquist is a rapper, a dancer, and a wit, as you'll see in The Amputee Rap.

5. Carly Fleischmann

Carly Fleischmann doesn't speak. Her parents thought their severely autistic daughter would never communicate with other people. However, they devoted their lives to providing education and intensive therapy for Carly, which paid off spectacularly when she was eleven years old -that's when she was introduced to a computer. Carly stunned her family and therapists by typing words almost immediately. The girl who never spoke poured her heart out about what autism is like. Now fourteen years old, Carly still doesn't speak, but communicates with her family and teachers by computer, and everyone else through her website and her Facebook page.

6. Liu Wei

Liu Wei touched a wire and was electrocuted at age ten. He spent 45 days in the hospital and his arms had to be amputated. Liu's parents insisted he learn to feed himself without arms so he could be independent. He became adept at using his feet, and at age 18 began to learn piano. Now 23, Liu performed on the TV series China's Got Talent this past summer and brought the crowd to tears with his performance, playing the piano with his toes.

"For people like me, there were only two options. One was to abandon all dreams, which would lead to a quick, hopeless death. The other was to struggle without arms to live an outstanding life," Liu explained to the judges on "China's Got Talent." Thankfully, Liu chose the latter option.

7. Bethany Hamilton

Bethany Hamilton was an accomplished amateur competitive surfer at age 13 and planned to surf professionally as an adult. But on October 31st, 2003, a tiger shark bit her left arm off as she was surfing in Hawaii. Even without her arm, Hamilton did not want to give up surfing. Within a month of the attack, she was back in the water. Not only did she have to relearn how to surf, but she had to face the fear that she might encounter another shark. In fact, she's seen sharks while surfing a few times. Hamilton was awarded an ESPY in the category Best Comeback by an Athlete in 2004. By 2005, she was surfing competitively again, and turned pro in 2008. Hamilton wrote and produced the award-winning 2007 documentary of her life, Heart of a Soul Surfer. Hamilton has also appeared on numerous TV shows.

8. Callum Truscott

If you had no legs, you would, of course, want to play football (soccer). Callum Truscott does just that, on his school team of able-bodied classmates. The 12-year-old from St Austell, Cornwall, participates in swimming competitions and is taking dance classes as well. Callum was born with legs that end just below the knees. He wears prosthetics for soccer, rugby, and cricket. Although safety rules prevent him from playing official rugby matches, he is a star on the football team. Callum is also an endurance swimmer, recently beating most of his classmates in a 1,500 meter race. He wants to become a sports instructor someday.

9. Vinod Thakur

Vinod Thakur was born without legs. He learned to walk on his hands, and made his living repairing cell phones in New Delhi. Thakur taught himself to dance by watching hip-hop videos on the internet, and after only five months of practice, auditioned for the TV show India's Got Talent. His performance in the first round of competition made him an instant star on the subcontinent. Thakur would like to open a dance school where he can teach other disabled people to dance.

10. Philippe Croizon

Philippe Croizon is a 42-year-old French quadruple amputee. In 1994, he was hit by 20,000 volts of electricity from a power line while working with a television antenna, causing so much damage that all his limbs had to be at least partially removed. Saturday, Croizon became the first quadruple amputee ever to swim the English Channel, which you can watch in this video. He expected the crossing to take around 24 hours, but completed it in just over 13 hours, using prosthetic flippers. Croizon's next endeavor? He plans to swim the Strait of Gibraltor!

For more stories, see these previous articles:

9 People Who Did It Anyway

9 People Who Knew They Could Do It

9 People Who Refused to be Limited

8 Amazingly Abled Athletes and Artists

Swimming Without Legs: 3 Inspiring Athletes

Dancing on Crutches

Roll Over Beethoven: 6 Modern Deaf Musicians

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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