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Katie Carey

10 Ways the Bicycle Moved Us Forward

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Katie Carey

How two little wheels spun a revolution in dating, fashion, medicine, and space travel.

1. IT REVOLUTIONIZED HOW PEOPLE HOOK UP, A CENTURY BEFORE TINDER.

When bicycle prices dropped in the 1890s, people of modest means could afford their own transport for the first time. The effect on romance was profound: Long-distance courtships were possible. People could date outside their parishes, which, according to British geneticist Steve Jones, widened the gene pool, making the bicycle “the most important event in recent human evolution.”  

2. IT SHOWED THE WORLD THAT AFRICAN AMERICANS BELONGED.

Fifty years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, Marshall “Major” Taylor was a star of professional track racing, which at the turn of the 20th century was the most popular sport in America. Taylor won his races with bulletlike bursts while fending off attacks from white riders. He outrode them with quiet defiance, setting seven world records.

3. IT GAVE US THE NATION'S FIRST PAVED HIGHWAYS.

Country roads of the 1890s were the stuff of nightmares, or, as The New York Times put it, “a morass in Spring, a Sahara in Summer … frozen stiff in later Autumn, and a slough whenever there is a thaw in Winter.” Urban roads—many of which were covered in wood—were smoother, but cyclists wanted asphalt. They got their wish via the League of American Wheelmen, which used its 100,000-plus members to agitate for the nation’s first state-funded paved roads in 1898.   

4. IT DEMONSTRATED THAT SPACE IS SAFE FOR ASTRONAUTS.

In 1973, the Skylab space station crew became the first people to pedal in space (on stationary bikes). In previous trips, voyagers experienced changes in heart rate and blood pressure, and scientists wanted to know how zero gravity affected the cardiovascular system, especially during heavy exertion. After collecting data over 171 days, the scientists concluded it was safe for astronauts to work in space for extended periods of time.

5. IT EMANCIPATED WOMEN FROM THE HOME (AND THEIR WARDROBE).

The cycling craze hit America in the 1880s, prompting women to break with Victorian-era mores by leaving their homes, alone, to pedal down streets—unchaperoned! Not only did women love the freedom, they loved the dress, ditching heavy skirts for bloomers to work the pedals.

6. IT HELPED HUNDREDS OF JEWS ESCAPE THE HOLOCAUST.

When Gino Bartali returned to Italy after his 1938 Tour de France win, he was expected to dedicate the honor to Mussolini and support the fascist regime. Instead, he harnessed his talents for the Resistance. Bartali helped Jews escape the country, carrying counterfeit identity papers in the frame and handlebars of his bicycle on “training rides.” If stopped by police for search, he’d ask them not to touch his “specially calibrated” bicycle. Bartali eventually went into hiding, but by then, he had cycled thousands of miles to help hundreds escape.

7. IT BROUGHT LIFE-SAVING CINEMA TO PEOPLE IN REMOTE PLACES. 

In 2013, a charity wanted to screen educational films in Malawi to spread info on HIV prevention, modern farming, and other issues. But most villages lacked electricity or gas for a generator. Enter Colin Tonks of Electric Pedals, who built a pedal-driven cinema that fits in two backpacks and weighs less than 40 pounds—perfect for toting to remote spots.  

8. IT CREATED THE PERFECT URBAN AMBULANCE.

In 1993, London ambulance driver Tom Lynch was stuck in traffic on his way to a call when he started thinking about how much faster he could get there on a bike. Soon he was doing just that. In 2000, he started a bike ambulance unit that now handles thousands of calls a year. The bicycle EMTs cart a siren and a medical kit, and can handle most emergencies, freeing ambulances for other calls.

9. IT PROVIDES CHEAP, CLEAN POWER FOR LOCAL ECONOMIES. 

Carlos Marroquín was working as a bus driver in Guatemala in 1997 when he noticed people tinkering with old bicycles by the side of the road. He learned they were building bicimáquinas—pedal-powered machines for pumping water and doing other jobs that take hours by hand. The group hired him, and he later founded Bici-Tec, where his bicimáquinas have turned daylong water-pumping pursuits into tasks that take just minutes.

10. IT HELPS ALLEVIATE SYMPTOMS OF PARKINSON'S DISEASE. 

In 2003, biomedical engineer Jay Alberts was on a high-effort weeklong tandem ride with a friend who has Parkinson’s when the friend’s symptoms nearly disappeared. Alberts then studied a group of Parkinson’s patients who rode at an intense 80-90 rpm clip on a tandem bike, and had a 35 percent improvement in symptoms. Intense exercise can’t cure the disease, but it can temper it.

For more stories from our 10 issue, click here. Subscribe to mental_floss magazine here!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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
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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]

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