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8 Who Rose to the Challenge

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Almost five years ago, I wrote 9 People Who Did It Anyway, about people who excelled in the exact activity they weren't supposed to be able to. A dozen lists later, we still see new stories of such accomplishments. Some take on these challenges to continue what they were doing before they became disabled. Some do it because they don't like to be told they can't. Some do it to show the world that disabled people encompass a wide range of ambition and ability, just like everyone else. Others do it to raise money and awareness of those less fortunate. And some do it just because they want to. Each has a story worth telling.


1. Nick Newell

Nick "Notorious" Newell is an MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter, lightweight category. He was born with a left arm that ends just below the elbow. Newell had a distinguished high school and college career in wrestling, and an amateur MMA record of two wins and one loss. Since turning professional, he has an undefeated record of nine matches. His biggest challenge so far is finding opponents, as many fighters are unwilling to take him on. On December 7th, Newell earned the XFC lightweight championship title by defeating Eric Reynolds in an 82-second fight, which you can see on video.


2. Zach Hodskins

Zach Hodskins was born in 1996 perfectly healthy, except he was missing half of his left arm. Still, he became a basketball phenomenon in grade school, and a star on his middle school team in Tennessee. Then his family moved to Georgia, where Zach had to explain what happened to his arm all over again.

“Everyone wanted to know how I lost my arm, which is nothing new,” Zach said. “Now if you think about it, that’s funny because what they don’t know is, I never had it. So I got a serious face and I told them that it got bitten off by a shark. The look on their faces was priceless. I like that story; makes me sound tougher.”

As a junior at Milton High School, Zach is averaging 12 points a game and lands 60% of his three-point shots. See Hodskins in action.


3. Derek Rabelo

Ernesto Rabelo is a Brazilian surfer. When his son was born in 1992, he had high hopes for the boy to become a professional surfer, so much so that he named him after surfer Derek Ho. Derek Rabelo was born blind, but the dream remained. Derek has surfed all over the world, including Hawaii's famous Pipeline. Rabelo is the subject of a documentary now in production called Beyond Sight. See Rabelo in action at vimeo.


4. Henderson Brack

Henderson Brack was born in 1840 and served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He was wounded in battle, and his arm was amputated. Brack was an accomplished fiddle player before his injury, and afterward set about finding a way to play again. He held his bow between his knees and moved the fiddle up and down under the bow! Brack became famous across eastern Texas and western Louisiana as the one-armed fiddle player.


5. Eric LeGrand

Eric LeGrand was a defensive tackle at Rutgers University until he became paralyzed during a game in October of 2010. His neck was fractured and his spinal cord injured. His mother was told that LeGrand would most likely be on a respirator for the rest of his life, and his chances of walking again were between zero and 5%. However. LeGrand announced his intention to recover. With practice, he developed the ability to breathe on his own within a few months. In early 2011, he had recovered sensation all over his body and could move his shoulders. Within a year of his injury, he began to use his arms again, and could stand with the help of a metal frame. LeGrand also returned to his studies, determined to graduate. Meanwhile, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano moved to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and signed LeGrand to the team, completing the young player's dream of being part of the NFL. LeGrand accepted, then announced his retirement from football in order to free up the slot for another player. However, LeGrand works as an motivational speaker and appears in ads for Subway. His plans are to become a sports announcer. And to walk again.


6. Mikhail Tal

In 1957, Soviet chess Grandmaster Misha Tal became the USSR's youngest chess champion at the age of 20. He went on to become World Champion in 1960. Tal holds the world record for the longest winning streak in chess history -and he also holds second place in that record. Lifelong ill health combined with drug and alcohol abuse led to his death from kidney failure in 1992. Buried among the chess accomplishments in his biography is the fact that Tal was born with Ectrodactyly (Lobster Claw Syndrome) in his right hand, meaning his fingers were fused together. This didn't affect his chess game, but what even many chess fans don't know is that Tal was a piano player as well! Photograph by Wikipedia user Gerhard Hund.


7. Spencer West

Spencer West has a genetic condition that prevented his legs' muscles from working, so they were amputated when he was a child. Since he has no legs, he walked on his hands. All the way up Mt. Kilimanjaro! West reached Uhuru Peak in Tanzania, the highest altitude in Africa, on June 19th of last summer. From his blog:

The moment the summit was within sight... it was incredible. We looked around - me, David and Alex - and realized that, after seven grueling days of relentless climbing, after 20,000 feet of our blood, sweat and tears (and, let's face it, vomit) we had actually made it. We were at the top. The summit sign seemed almost like a mirage.

Then it sunk in. We made it. To the top of the mountain. The mountain that I promised to the world I would climb. The bleeding fingers and blisters were all worth it. I looked at the guys, my two buddies who dreamed up this crazy plan with me, and realized we actually finished what we started.

West's announcement can be heard in a video from the BBC. His climb was not only a personal accomplishment, but it raised funds for West's charity, Free The Children, to bring clean water to villages in Kenya.


8. Jacob Rainey

Jacob Rainey was playing quarterback on his high school football team last year when his leg was broken, but much worse, an artery was ruptured, which cut off his circulation. His leg was amputated a week later. Rainey wanted to return to football, and play quarterback again, but his therapists doubted that any prosthetic leg would be strong, flexible, and sensitive enough for the required moves. But Rainey worked hard and, with an athletic prosthetic made for skiers, returned to the field as starting quarterback last September at his high school. And just last week, Rainey announced that he will be playing football at the University of Virginia after high school.

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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.