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Florence Chadwick, the Woman Who Conquered the English Channel

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As she approached the shore of Sangatte, France, Florence Chadwick was exhausted. She had been swimming in the English Channel for over 16 hours, battling strong winds and thick fog that made every stroke a challenge. The previous leg of her journey, from France to England—which she had completed a year earlier—had been easy compared to this. But her effort would be worth it: When she finally arrived on French soil that day, September 11, 1951, she became the first woman to successfully swim round-trip across the English Channel.

Born in San Diego, California in 1918, Chadwick discovered her love of ocean swimming at an early age. Her hometown offered her easy access to the beach, and she started competing in swimming races at 6 years old. She liked pushing herself to swim in difficult conditions: at night, in fog, and in strong winds. At the age of 10, she swam a two-mile race in the rough waters of Hermosa Beach, wowing the crowds. At 13, she earned second place at the U.S. national championships.

After graduating from San Diego State College, she produced aquatic shows for the U.S. military, and in 1944, she swam with MGM’s water ballet star Esther Williams in the musical film Bathing Beauty. But Chadwick had her sights set far beyond Hollywood.

 
As a child, Chadwick had been inspired by Gertrude Ederle, who, in 1926, became the first woman to swim the English Channel. Before her, women were considered incapable of such a long-distance swim. Ederle not only proved them wrong, but beat the men’s record by two hours.

Chadwick became determined to be the first woman to swim the Channel round-trip—not just from France to England, as Ederle had, but from England to France. Swimmers and other experts considered the latter to be a more difficult crossing, in part because of the strong current pushing away from the shore. No woman had ever swum the England-to-France route successfully. Chadwick set a goal of swimming both Ederle's route and then back again, even if she had to rest in a bit between trips.

After World War II, Chadwick took a job as a comptometer (a type of adding machine) operator with an American oil company in Saudi Arabia. She swam in the Persian Gulf before and after work and for up to 10 hours on her days off. After two years of rigorous training, she decided she was ready to make the first part of her Channel attempt—the trip from France to England, which Ederle had swum in 1926.

Chadwick training at a British hotel in 1955. She swum while tied with a rope to simulate pushing against the current. Image credit: Getty Images

 
On a chilly August morning in 1950, Chadwick dove into the water outside Wissant, France. She swam across the 21 miles of the Channel to Dover, England, accompanied by her father, friends, and authorities in a fishing boat. They kept an eye on her route and watched out for hazards, while she occasionally nibbled sugar cubes to keep up her energy. The trip took her a little over 13 hours—a world record for fastest swim across the Channel by a woman.

"I feel fine,” she told reporters after crawling ashore in England. “I am quite prepared to swim back." But Chadwick ended up delaying the trip back across the Channel to France for over a year, waiting for more favorable weather and tides, and fattening herself up on a calorie-rich diet in preparation for the weight loss that comes with a long swim in cold waters.

On September 11, 1951, despite dense fog and headwinds, Chadwick finally entered the water in Dover. The route to France was punishing, made worse by the fumes from an accompanying motorboat. But she completed the trip in 16 hours, 22 minutes—a world record. When she arrived, the mayor of Sangatte was there to shake her hand.

 
Chadwick’s accomplishment made her famous. Back in San Diego, townspeople threw her a ticker tape parade. She appeared on TV shows such as What's My Line?, endorsed Catalina Swimwear, and was given a car by the city of San Diego. Although she had achieved her goal of conquering the Channel, it wasn't enough.

On July 4, 1952, Chadwick attempted to swim across the Catalina Channel, which stretches from Catalina Island to the Palos Verde peninsula on the Southern California coast. After almost 16 hours of swimming through a thick fog, frigid water, and nearby sharks (which her support crew, following in boats, shot at with rifles), she gave up when she was just half a mile away from land. She later told a reporter: “Look, I’m not excusing myself, but if I could have seen land I might have made it.”

Two months later, she finally succeeded, making the journey to Catalina in 13 hours, 47 minutes—two hours faster than the previous official record, set by a man.

Chadwick followed up her Catalina swim with another trip across the English Channel from England to France in 1953, shaving several hours off her previous time. Later the same year, she swam across the Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco, as well as the Bosporus and the Dardanelles straits in Turkey, breaking records made by both men and women along the way.

Although she achieved incredible success, Chadwick was also notable for her perseverance: She failed to complete swims, let alone break records, more times than she succeeded, not only in the Catalina Channel but in Lake Ontario and the Irish Sea. But she never let failure stop her. A pioneer, she demolished the notion that women were incapable of long-distance endurance swimming, and paved the way for other women to continue to break records in the sport.

Even after retiring in 1960, she wasn’t content to rest. She opened swimming schools in New York and New Jersey, frequently coached young swimmers, lectured on the value of fitness, and worked as a credit counselor and stockbroker.

In 1995, 25 years after she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Chadwick died of leukemia in San Diego. Fittingly, her ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.

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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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