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17 Fun Facts for the YMCA’s 170th Birthday

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Between cigarette dogs and Nobel laureates (not to mention a certain disco anthem), it’s been an eventful 1.7 centuries for the Young Men’s Christian Association, whose first chapter was established in London on June 6, 1844.

1. The YMCA Was Created in Response to the Industrial Revolution.

Appalled by his native England’s squalid living conditions during this period, Sir George Williams (1821-1905) began organizing a series of Bible meetings which later expanded and ultimately gave birth to the organization.

2. Since Then, It’s Spread to Over 120 Countries.

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Also, by the “Y’s” official tally, there are upwards of 2500 individual branches in the United States alone.

3. In Its Infancy, Many Felt that the Association Shouldn’t Offer Exercise Programs.

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“Our object,” Williams declared, “is the formation of the spiritual condition of the young men engaged in houses of business, by the formation of Bible classes, family and social prayer meetings, mutual improvement societies, or any other spiritual agency.” By this line of reasoning, several of his associates felt that the theologically-inclined YMCA had no business getting involved with physical education—an attitude that persisted until a few American locations began producing workout courses in the late 1800s.

4. The YMCA’s Logo Looked Radically Different During the Early 1890s.

A crimson, downward-facing triangle with the words Spirit, Mind, and Body written on its sides was used from 1891 to 1895. A vestige of this dynamic symbol remains in today’s version. [PDF]

5. The World Alliance of YMCAs’ Official Emblem Includes Several New Testament References.

This international group adopted their circular hallmark in 1891. Inside, you can see the first two letters of Christ’s name (in Greek). There’s also an open Bible turned to John XVII: 21, which says—among other things—“that they may all be one.”

6. Male Swimwear Used to Be Aggressively Prohibited by Numerous Chapters.

Before the 1960s, mandatory nudity was common practice in American swimming pools (unless you were a lady, in which case, you’d have to don a full suit at all times). The YMCA didn’t take a national stance on this topic, allowing individual locations to draft their own rules. Many enforced compulsory male skinny dipping, claiming that buck-naked patrons supposedly spread less bacteria than their clothed counterparts.

7. Basketball Was Invented by a YMCA Employee.

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While working as an instructor at Springfield, Massachusetts’ YMCA International Training College, James Naismith (1861-1939) famously created the game as a way to invigorate his students during the harsh New England winter of 1891.

8. … And So Was Volleyball.

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Four years later, William G. Morgan (1870-1942)—another Bay State YMCA teacher—developed volleyball as a less-demanding alternative to Naismith’s flourishing indoor sport.

9. One of the Y’s Early Proponents Wound Up Winning the Very First Nobel Peace Prize.

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Henry Dunant (1828-1910) passionately fanned the YMCA’s flames throughout Northern Africa and Europe, helped found the Red Cross, and—in 1910—won the original Nobel Peace Prize for his achievements.

10. George H.W. Bush Helped Start a Local Y in Midland, TX.

Back in 1953, America’s 41st president served as chairman of a temporary board which rallied to secure the necessary funds for building their city its very own chapter.

11. The Word “Bodybuilding” Was Coined by a Physical Culturist Working for the YMCA.

Strength-training devotee Robert J. Roberts even allowed his employers to advertise their brand by running ads that included photos of his broad, muscular backside. “Bodybuilding” was a term he thought up in 1881.

12. The Y was Shut Down in the Soviet Union for Over 70 Years.

In the 1920s, despite having commanded a strong presence in Czarist Russia, the U.S.S.R. shut down all of its YMCA branches, barring the organization until 1990.

13. Combat-Ready “Cigarette Dogs” Were Sponsored by the YMCA During World War I.

Previously, YMCA magazines had condemned tobacco’s addictive evils. However, in a publicity stunt that would’ve made PETA shudder, the agency sponsored a group of specially-trained bulldogs to carry cartons of cigarettes to nervous soldiers across war-torn Europe.

14. We Can Thank the Y for Father’s Day.

Sonora Louise Smart of Spokane, Washington pitched the idea of having a special day to honor dutiful dads everywhere at a regional YMCA meeting. The facility—enamored with her suggestion—held America’s first Father’s Day celebration on June 19th, 1910.

15. With the YMCA’s Help, Basketball Has (Arguably) Become China’s Favorite Sport.

Today, approximately 300 million Chinese citizens play basketball, which was originally introduced to the country by YMCA missionaries in the late 19th century.

16. The YMCA Sued the Village People for their Eponymous Hit Single.

Admit it. You’ve had the chorus stuck in your head from the moment you read this article’s headline, haven’t you? Released in 1978, “Y.M.C.A” was an instant hit which rapidly became one of the decade’s most enduring classics. However, the actual YMCA strongly disapproved and, the following year, sued the disco group for copyright infringement (the case was eventually dropped).

17. By the Way, Colin Powell Even Sang a Parody of That Song … While in Office!

Donning his best Weird Al impression, the Secretary of State delivered a strange spoof with lyrics like “The President Came to Me and Said/ ‘Colin, I am Sure You’ll Agree/ I Need You to Run/ The Department of State/ We’re Between a Rock and a Hard Place!” in the middle of a 2004 Southeastern Asian security meeting.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]