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Charles McDonald

7 People Who Did It Anyway

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Charles McDonald

No matter how many lists I post on people who have achieved their dreams despite disabilities, more people manage to do exactly what you'd think they wouldn't be able to. Here are seven more stories that prove nothing is impossible.

1. Georges Exantus

Georges Exantus was a professional dancer in Haiti who had earned the nickname "The Gladiator." Then came the 2010 earthquake. Exantus' apartment building collapsed, pinning him under the rubble for three days before his friends could dig him out. His right leg was so damaged that it was ultimately amputated. A medical relief team from Israel sent Exantus to the Sheba Medical Center in Israel for rehabilitation and a prosthetic leg. Exantus' left leg and one hand were also damaged and needed surgical intervention. Within a year, he was back on the dance floor doing the salsa, cha-cha, and samba, and is now teaching dance as part of a Latin dance company. Exantus also married his girlfriend Sherly earlier this year. You can see more pictures here.

2. Iván Castro

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Captain Iván Castro is still on active duty in the U.S. Army Special Forces, despite the fact that he is blind. As a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, he was in Iraq in 2006 when a mortar landed in front of him. It killed the two men with him and left Castro severely injured. He had several broken bones, a finger that was amputated, internal injuries, and an eye blown off. His other eye was damaged beyond repair. After two months in the hospital and a total of 17 months recovering, Castro returned to active duty at Fort Bragg.

Castro also returned to athletic training. He had participated in several long distance runs before his injuries, and was determined to run marathons afterward. Castro runs with a guide, and has participated in the Marine Corps Marathon, the U.S. Air Force Marathon, and the Boston Marathon several times, as well as 50- and 100-mile ultra marathons and long-distance bicycle tours. Castro also works with wounded veterans groups and is an advocate for the blind.

3. David Holton

Jefferson District Judge David Holton is the only blind judge in Kentucky. He was born with sight but suffered a tumor as a young man that left him blind. But he had played football, and loves the sport. So Holton took on a second job for fun—as stadium announcer at high school football games! He did the deed for Manual High School in Louisville when his son played football for the school, and after Brooke graduated, switched to Western High, where his wife works. With cues from his friend Thomas Patteson, he follows the game by sound, and fans in the bleachers don't even know the announcer is blind until they are told.

4. Charles McDonald

Photograph from Charles McDonald at Facebook.

Charles McDonald of Bellevue, Kentucky, is a cyclist who does mountain bike and cyclocross races, with only one arm. His right arm was amputated due to a 1998 accident, after which he became depressed and gained 100 pounds. McDonald discovered bike racing and the weight fell away. He trained long hours and entered 24-hour endurance races where he blew past able-bodied riders. He is a member of the Paralyzed Veterans Racing Team, but also races on two non-disabled teams.

5. Zach Hodskins

Zach Hodskins (number 24) is a senior basketball player at Milton High School in Milton, Georgia. He was born with only part of his left arm. As a child, when other kids asked how he lost his arm, he would tell them a shark bit it off. Hodskins played basketball as a matter of course, and impressed his coaches and teammates. He was averaging 31 points a game—as an 11-year-old on a middle school team. During his high school career, he was courted by several Division II and III colleges, but accepted an offer to play for the Florida Gators as a preferred walk-on. See an interview with Hodskins

6. Caleb Smith

Caleb Smith of St. Paul, Minnesota, was three years old when a rare blood disease attacked him, resulting in having both his legs amputated at the knee, and both arms amputated at the elbow. But that didn't slow him down. In fifth grade, he joined the school wrestling team. Now on the varsity wrestling team at Harding High School, Smith won his first match this past spring. See him in action here

7. Michael Stolzenberg

Photograph from Harris Stolzenberg.

In 2008, 8-year-old Michael Stolzenberg suffered a serious bacterial infection that led to gangrene. To save his life, both his arms and legs were amputated. But he kept his sense of humor and his determination. Stolzenberg played football in school and plays lacrosse for his middle school team. Now 13 years old, he reacted to the bombing at the Boston Marathon with an immediate offer to help victims who had to have amputations. He and his older brother Harris came up with a plan in which Harris, a college freshman, will run in the 2014 Boston Marathon to raise money for The Scott Rigsby Foundation, which will help those injured in the bombing. You can donate through the site Mikey's Run.

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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]