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La Sierra High PE Film Project

This 1960s High School Gym Class Would Ruin You

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La Sierra High PE Film Project

“The program, in sum, not only builds physical fitness, but good Americans.” That’s how Look magazine summarized the physical education program of La Sierra High School in January 1962 [PDF]. If you’re wondering how a gym class got a major spread in a national publication—as well as an endorsement from President John F. Kennedy—take a look at this.

That’s a bunch of teenagers looking like they could rip a phone book in half. The PE curriculum at La Sierra in Carmichael, California was not so much famous as it was notorious: It frequently asked more of the students than of prospects entering the Naval Academy. Calisthenics (push-ups, pull-ups, suspended sit-ups) were done on a circuit during both a 12-minute warm up and 5 minutes of punishing, high-intensity exercise through an obstacle course. Coach Stan LeProtti, who initiated the program in 1957, even had custom equipment like peg boards and monkey bars built.

“Kids today are not built like that,” Doug Orchard, a filmmaker working on a documentary about LeProtti’s efforts, tells mental_floss. “It was the last great physical education program in the country.”

Students moved through the program based on a color scale: white shorts were for rookies, while red, blue, purple, and gold signaled serious ability. White shorts had to do a minimum of six pull-ups. Today, a Marine can pass a physical doing only three. Most boys, Orchard says, got to at least red. Getting to blue was a big deal; gold athletes were “crazy impressive.” Those who wanted a rare Navy Blue rank had to do 34 pull-ups and carry someone on their back for five miles. Only 19 students in the history of the school ever earned one.

“There were no injuries we’ve found,” Orchard says. “If you got the flu and were out a month, you had to re-test. The intensity and volume were crazy, but there was a progression. Their entire freshman year, they spent a long time just learning how to breathe correctly.”

The media attention surrounding La Sierra was so intense that by 1962, a health-conscious President Kennedy made an open plea for other schools to get involved, and more than 4000 signed up for the program, which eventually grew to include females. America’s youth may have been at its fittest—until the 1960s began to chip away at their resolve.

“There was a lot of resistance when Vietnam lagged on,” Orchard says. “People started showing up not dressed for PE as a form of protest.” By the time La Sierra closed its doors in 1983, LeProtti’s efforts had been mostly forgotten. But a few years ago, clothing chain Abercrombie & Fitch phoned Ron Jones, a physical fitness historian, to ask about the workout footage he had uploaded.

It went viral. Now Jones and Orchard are hoping their film—due out in summer 2016—will help both lawmakers and educators to re-assess activity programs across the country. Currently, less than half of all high school students hit the gym for any reason, let alone exhibit the physical feats the kids of La Sierra were able to pull off.

“We have a shot of bringing back real physical education,” Orchard says. “These kids were doing things I’ve never seen anyone else do.”

All Images Courtesy of La Sierra High PE Film Project

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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
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science
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]

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