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12 Feats of Strength from an 18th-Century Strongman

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In the early 18th century, traveling performers used trickery and manipulations of leverage to perform impressive-looking "feats of strength." These weren't real strongmen, per se, but rather normal dudes who had a slightly above-average understanding of physics. This all changed with Thomas Topham, a British man who managed to perform the feats without any shenanigans.

Topham lacked the craft or knowledge of the aforementioned "strongmen," but he was able to meet or exceed their feats due to his abnormal and actual super-strength. One notable exception was when he tried to pull against two horses. "Ignorant of the method, he seated himself on the ground with his feet against two stirrups, and by the weight of his body he succeeded in pulling against a single horse; but in attempting to pull against two horses, he was lifted out of his place and, one of his knees was shattered against the stirrups."

Because of this accident, Topham walked with a limp. He also stood an unassuming 5'10", so he hardly fit the profile of the world's strongest man. When he applied to perform his act in Devon, a local politician "requested him to strip, that he might examine whether he was made like them...[Topham] was found to be extremely muscular. What were hollows under the arms and hams of others, were filled up with ligaments in him."

Topham was said to have done the following during his performances:

1. "Roll[ed] up a pewter dish of seven pounds as a man rolls up a sheet of paper."

2. "[Held] a pewter quart at an arm’s length, and squeez[ed] the sides together like an egg-shell."

3. "Lift[ed] two hundred weight with his little finger, and mov[ed] it gently over his head."

4. "Broke a rope fastened to the floor, that would sustain twenty hundred weight."

5. "His head being laid on one chair, and his feet on another, four people (fourteen stone each) sat upon his body, which he heaved at pleasure."

6. "He struck a round bar of iron, one inch diameter, against his naked arm, and at one stroke bent it like a bow."

7. "Having laid seven or eight short and strong pieces of tobacco-pipe on the first and third fingers, he broke them my the force of his middle finger."

8. "He broke the bowl of strong tobacco-pipe placed between his first and third fingers, by pressing his fingers together sideways."

9. "Having thrust a bowl under his garter, his legs being bent, he broke it to pieces by the tendons of his hams, without altering the bending of his leg."

10. "Dr. Desaguliers saw him lift a rolling stone of about 800 pounds’ weight with his hands only, standing in a frame above it and taking told of a frame fastened to it."

11. "Taking a [fire] poker, and holding the ends of it in his hands, and the middle against the back of his neck, he brought both ends of it together before him, and then pulled it almost straight again."

12. "He took Mr. Chambers, Vicar of All Saints, who weighed twenty-seven stone, and raised him with one hand."

(It should be noted that twenty-seven stone is 378 lbs. It seems that Mr. Chambers was the Vicar of All-You-Can-Eat, as well.)

All those feats were part of his act, but, while living his normal life in Islington, observers had seen Topham display his power by "breaking a broomstick of the first magnitude by striking it against his bare arm, lifting two hogs-heads of water, heaving his horse over the turnpike gate," and "carrying the beam of a house as a soldier carries his firelock."

Oh, and he also loved to sing. "I heard him sing a solo to the organ in St. Werburgh’s church," said one party, "though he might perform with judgment, yet the voice, more terrible than sweet, scarcely seemed human."

[Sources: The Spirit of the English Magazines; American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge, Volume 3]

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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.