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11 Historical Firsts on Mount Everest

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By Lauren Hansen

In 1953, adventurist Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay became the first men to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Ever since, the world's tallest mountain has been calling out to thrill-seekers of all shapes and sizes. More than 3,800 people have attempted to conquer its icy mountain face, and while at least 225 people have died trying, men and women, the blind and the handicapped, the old and the young have all reached it's 29,029-foot peak. But these intrepid folks don't just come for the climb — they also seek to make Mount Everest history. Check out these 11 Mount Everest firsts:

1. First teen with Down syndrome

Last month, 16-year-old Eli Reimer successfully climbed the 17,598 feet to Mt. Everest's Base Camp. This is impressive not only because he accomplished as a teenager what millions of adults would never even consider, but also because Reimer is the first teen with Down syndrome to achieve the feat. The Oregon teen made the 70-mile trek with his father and a team of seven to the Himalayan mountain's staging area to raise money and awareness for disabled children. "It's monumental," said the boy's father. "When everyone else was dragging, it was Eli who led the way to the base camp." While he comes close, Reimer is actually not the youngest to take on Everest. In 2010, then-13-year-old Jordan Romero became the youngest person to reach Everest's peak.

2. First 76-year-old

A 76-year-old Nepalese man named Min Bahadur Sherchan reached Everest's peak on May 25, 2008. It was Sherchan's first attempt, and he said he was determined to "climb the peak or die trying." Close behind him in both age and timing was Yuichiro Miura, a 75-year-old Japanese man who reached the summit the very next day to become the second-oldest Everest climber. In 2002, 73-year-old Tamae Watanabe — a retired office worker who lives at the foot of Japan's tallest mountain, Mount Fuji — became the oldest woman to reach the summit.

3. First under nine hours

Sometimes getting to the mountain's peak is less impressive than how quickly you do it. The harrowing climb from the foot of the base camp to the summit usually takes four days, if weather is on your side. But in 2004, stellar Sherpa guide Pem Dorjee covered the same trek in a record 8 hours and 10 minutes. This was actually the second time he earned the title for fastest ascent. In 2003, Dorjee held the record for his 12-hour-and-45-minute ascent for three days until another Sherpa beat his time by just under two hours.

4. First woman to summit

Junko Tabei may appear slight, almost fragile looking, but the Japanese mountaineer has a steely determination that helped her to become the first woman to reach Everest's apex. In 1975, Tabei was chosen as one of 15 in the first all-female team to take on the mountain. But only a few days into the journey, the expedition was hit by an avalanche. The team and its Sherpas were buried underneath, and Tabei was knocked unconscious for several minutes before a Sherpa dug her out. But the diminutive climber persevered, becoming the first of her group to reach the top on May 16, 1975. Just 11 days later, a 37-year-old Tibetan woman named Phantog became the second woman to make it to the top.

5. First-ever rock concert

In 2007, a cancer awareness group from Colorado reached the greatest of musical heights with a first-ever performance on Everest's rocky mountain face. The Love Hope Strength Foundation led a team of 40 musicians, cancer survivors, and mountaineers to the 18,600-foot peak of Kala Patthar, situated just above Everest Base Camp. After a fourteen-day trek, the "Everest Rocks" journey culminated in an acoustic concert that raised money for the Nepal Cancer Relief Society.

6. First amputees

In 1998, Tom Whittaker, a 49-year-old college instructor from Arizona, reached the world's tallest peak on his third try. Whittaker, who lost his leg in a car crash in 1979, managed the climb with a specially designed artificial leg that is lightweight and has its own crampons—claw-like boot attachments climbers use to stay secure on the icy mountain. Eight years later, Everest got its first double amputee. A New Zealand mountaineer named Mark Inglis — who lost both his legs beneath the knee from frostbite in 1982 during a climbing incident — reached the summit on May 16, 2006. "I'm not doing this to be the first double amputee," the 47-year-old said, "If I am, then it's the icing on the cake."

7. First swim across a glacial lake 

For at least one brave soul, Everest's draw is its icy waters. In 2010, 40-year-old environmentalist Lewis Pugh became the first person to swim across Everest's Pumori Lake. Situated at about 17,000 feet, the lake waters are a balmy 36 degrees Fahrenheit. Lewis is an avid "polar bear" swimmer, meaning he braves waters that could put up a good fight in hell. But the Everest swim, for which Pugh wore only swim trunks, a cap, and goggles, required a delicate balance. If he swam too quickly he could lose energy and drown; but if he moved too slowly he could succumb to hypothermia. "Because of the altitude you need to swim very slowly and deliberately," he said. "I was gasping for air and if I had swum any faster I would have gone under." In the end, Pugh breast-stroked across the 0.62-mile lake in 22 minutes and 51 seconds, which was just right.

8. First blind person

Erik Weihenmayer lost his sight because of a rare disease at the age of 13. But that didn't stop him from exploring the world. The Colorado native took up climbing at 16, and by 32 he had already climbed some of the world's tallest peaks, including Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. And in 2001, he conquered Everest, by following the sound of bells tied to the jackets of his climbing mates and Sherpa guides. Weihenmayer went on to climb two more mountains.

9. First snowboarding descent

Everest isn't exactly a welcoming snowboarding trail. But despite the distinct lack of soft powder, two snowboarders attempted in 2001 to be the first to lay down tracks on that unforgiving mountain face. The two Europeans, Stephan Gatt and Marco Siffredi, snowboarded down Everest within two days of each other. However, it was Gatt who officially earned the title as the first to swowboard down Everest. If the feat itself weren't enough, the athlete carried all of his snowboarding equipment up the mountain, and did so without the aid of oxygen. Then, after locking in his bindings, Siffredi descended down the North Face of the mountain, about 600 feet below the summit. The extreme cold broke one of his bindings, temporarily halting him in his tracks, but he continued his approximately two-hour descent after a Sherpa came to his rescue. In 2000, a Slovenian ski teacher named Davo Karnicar was the first to ski from Everest's summit to its base. The attempt was actually his second — he was first thwarted by bad weather in 1996 — which he completed in five hours. Karnicar took only a few breaks and reportedly never removed his skis.

10. First cancer survivor

Sean Swarner has battled cancer not once, but twice. At 13 years old, Swarner was diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin's disease, and was given only three months to live. Swarner overcame the odds and his Hodgkin's went into remission, but tests a year later revealed a golf-ball-sized tumor on his right lung. If you can imagine it, this second prognosis — for Askin's sarcoma — was worse than the first, and he was given only two weeks to live. Swarner went through multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation over the years, and though he lost the use of one of his lungs, he came out on top. The same single-minded determination that pushed him through his illness propelled him toward Everest. On May 16, 2002, Swarner became the first cancer survivor to stand on the mountain's summit. Since that climb, Swarner has gone on to complete the "7-summits," the highest peaks in seven continents.

11. First back-to-back summits

I'm exhausted just thinking about this, but one young woman reached Everest's peak twice… in one week. Chhurim Sherpa dreamed of climbing Everest ever since she was in the fifth grade, when she saw tourists trekking their equipment through her village in northeastern Nepal. But the 29-year-old wanted to break records, and so she set out to complete back-to-back climbs. Her first ascent, made with a group of four other climbers, was on May 12, 2012. After standing on top of the world for 15 minutes, returning safely to base, and resting for two days, she made the journey again on May 17 with just her aide for company. On that second trip she climbed the steepest face while carrying more than 30 pounds of gear. Beyond her double climb, Chhurim remains in an elite group of only 21 Nepalese women who have reached Everest's peak. "I really want other Nepalese women to get involved in mountaineering," she said. "We should have a can-do attitude so that we can move forward and not be left behind simply because we're women."

SourcesAssociated Press (2), BBCCNNHuffington PostReuters (2), The Telegraph, USA TodayWBTV,The Week

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]