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Pilates: The Fitness Trend Started in an Internment Camp

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You couldn’t be blamed for hearing the word “Pilates” and thinking about super-fit starlets and medieval-looking machines like the Reformer. But the popular fitness system didn’t begin in a boardroom or a gym. In fact, Pilates has its roots in a World War I internment camp on a British island.

After World War I broke out, the British government feared that German men between 17 and 42 years of age would become German soldiers if they were deported. So they were locked up in camps all over Britain, including, starting in 1914, at a camp in a village on the Isle of Man known as Knockaloe. Knockaloe would eventually host over 23,000 internees, becoming the British Isles’ largest internment camp—so big that it required its own railroad.

But things weren’t so great at the overcrowded Knockaloe, where inmates began to succumb to the pressure of their ostracism and imprisonment. The camp inspector dubbed their behavior—which we now know was depression—barbed-wire disease.” 

One of the inmates at Knockaloe was a German boxer, athlete, and all-around health nut who was working for a British circus when he was imprisoned. He was strongly influenced by Germany’s physical culture movement, which advocated exercise as a way to strengthen the body and connect the individual to others. His name was Joseph Pilates, and he found unexpected purpose in the camps.

Pilates had been a sickly child, but he managed to rehabilitate himself through exercise and conditioning. So when he saw the condition of his fellow inmates, many of whom were bedridden and hospitalized, it sparked an idea. He began to teach his fellow internees to work out.

As he watched the progress of his bedridden countrymen, Pilates started to wonder if he could apply the fluid stretching movements he had observed in animals to humans who were incapacitated. He took straps, bunk bed springs, and other parts and began to experiment with crude homemade fitness machines that let people work out even when they were in bed. The machine would eventually be adapted into what is now called the Pilates Cadillac, a bunk-like apparatus with springs, bars, and a bed-like surface.

In 1918, influenza swept through Great Britain and the camp. None of Pilates's “trainees” died from the disease—an accomplishment he attributed to what he was starting to think of as his method. By the time Pilates was released later that year, he was passionate about his new technique. He began to teach it to Germans, contributing to a new movement called “Lebensreform” (life reform) that encouraged a return to nature and respect for the body.

But Pilates’ return to Germany didn’t last long. Though he later claimed that he escaped Germany due to pressure to teach his methods to the army, others note that he went to the United States in part to look into patenting one of his fitness devices. In America, he found a rabid audience for his new fitness method, which he first called “Contrology” and later renamed the Pilates Technique.

Almost a century later, Pilates is seen as the province of yoga pants-wearing yuppies and green-juice-guzzling fitness freaks. It’s come a long way from the bunks of a British internment camp—Pilates is now big business, generating nearly $7 billion of revenue in 2012 alone.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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