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7 Stories of People Who Refused to be Limited (in 2012)

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Is it just me, or are there more and more global news stories about disabled people accomplishing feats that would be quite newsworthy for able-bodied people? I believe it is happening more and more, as modern attitudes about those who've had physical setbacks change to reflect reality. People termed "disabled" have always had the will to accomplish what others thought impossible, but now the people around them are seeing the possibilities more and more. And we can't discount the effects of instant news coverage, which both inspires others and brings us stories we would not otherwise know.

1. Hector Picard

Twenty years ago, Hector Picard was working as an electrician when a transformer sent 13,000 volts through his body. His many injuries included arm damage so bad that both were amputated. After a long recovery, Picard embraced athletics and has competed in more than 50 triathlons in the past few years. Right now he is traveling by bike from Ft. Lauderdale to New York City -a journey of 1500 miles! Along the way, he is speaking and raising funds for the the I Will Foundation. You can follow his progress online.

2. Annie Clark

Every year, the Zaner-Bloser language arts and reading materials company gives awards to students for great penmanship. This year, they were inspired to add a new category of awards for disabled students, and one of the two winners was Annie Clark, a 7-year-old born with no hands. Annie writes by holding an instrument between her two arms, the same method she uses to dress herself and paint her toenails.

"Annie has always been very, very determined, very self-sufficient in dressing herself and feeding herself," Mr. Clark said. "She can ride a bike. She swims. She is just determined that there's nothing she can't do."

Her father said she also types on a keyboard and uses an iPod Touch with no difficulties.

The Clark family has nine children, seven with disabilities, six who were adopted, four of them from China, which is where Annie was born.

3. Kaisa Leka

Kaisa Leka is a Finnish comic book artist, graphic designer, and politician. Leka's deformed legs were amputated ten years ago, and as a young adult, she had to learn to walk all over again with prosthetic legs. However, she did not stop there. Leka took up cycling with her husband, and they take long bike tours together around the world. Just last month, Leka was named Finland's Cyclist of the Year.

4. Claire Lomas

Claire Lomas completed the London Marathon last month with the aid of a bionic suit, even though she is paralyzed from the chest down. The 32-year-old Lomas broke her neck and back in a horse riding accident in 2007. She walked two miles of the course a day, and completed the 26-mile race in 16 days. Although Lomas will not be recorded as an official runner (the rules state finishers must cross the line the same day of the race), she received a special recognition from Virgin founder Richard Branson. The £43,000 ($75,000) walking apparatus, called the ReWalk bionic walking device, responds to changes in balance, and takes a step when the wearer indicates the desire for one. Lomas' race raised £80,000 for the organization Spinal Research.

5. Diane Van Deren

Diane Van Deren was always an athlete, participating in every sport her school offered, which led to a few years as a professional tennis player. Afterward she switched to running marathons. Van Deren suffered from epilepsy, undergoing grand mal seizures for years. Then in 1997, she made the decision to undergo brain surgery to relieve the symptoms. There was a risk of brain damage, but Van Deren weighed that risk against the risk of further brain damage or dying during one of her violent seizures, which had worsened over the years. Surgeons removed a damaged portion of her brain, and the seizures stopped. But there was some damage to her brain from the procedure. Van Deren lost her sense of direction, and her sense of time passing. There is also some memory loss, and a tendency toward sensory overload. In 2002, she began running ultra-marathons, races of 50 miles or more. Van Deren excelled in the longer races, which may be a result of her surgery. She is not aware of the length of time she is running, and may be less aware of pain than she would be otherwise. Now 52 years old, Van Deren finished the 1,000-mile Mountain to Sea Trail in North Carolina on Saturday, June 2, 2012. Her 22-day run set a record for the course, which had never been accomplished in less than 24 days before. Van Deren says she is now through with 1,000-mile races, but will continue in 50- and 100-mile events.

6. Cornel Hrisca-Munn

Cornel Hrisca-Munn was born with a deformed leg and no forearms in Romania in 1991. Placed in one of that country's famously poor orphanages of the time, he was not expected to survive, and wasn't even issued a birth certificate. But Hrisca-Munn survived, and was taken to England at the age of seven months for proper medical care. By the time he approached his teen years, he wanted to learn a musical instrument, and figured the drums were the only instruments he could manage. Hrisca-Munn placed second in a national drumming competition when he was only 14 years old! Earlier this year, YouTube videos of his playing made him a viral star. And he is learning to play bass guitar as well. Hrisca-Munn is now a student at Keble College, Oxford, England, studying philosophy and theology.

7. Chen Zhou

Chen Zhou of Shandong Province, China, was 12 years old when he lost his legs due to a train accident. He began to make a living at age 16 as a street singer, and he recently toured the country singing to pay for a house he bought for his family (he has a wife and two children). Chen is also a mountain climber. He recently completed his 12th ascent up Mount Taishan, which has stairs to the top -6300 of them! Chen walks on his hands, and sees Mount Taishan as both a personal challenge and an opportunity for publicity. Others see his stunt as an inspiration.

See more stories of people who refused to be limited by disability in previous posts of this continuing series.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]