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7 Stories You Haven't Heard About the Olympics

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When it comes to the Olympics, our good friend Justin Feinstein is a wealth of information. He has agreed to share his seven favorite stories with us today.

7 Stories You Haven't Heard About The Olympics

by Justin Feinstein

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1. Perfect 10s All Around!

Scoring a perfect 10 is the dream of every Olympic gymnast. In 1924, 22 male gymnasts made this dream a reality in the same event. But this wasn't due to some freak occurrence or heightened level of competition "“ the event was rope climbing, which has since been discontinued.

2. Basketball Gets Dragged Through the Mud

Basketball's debut at the 1936 Olympics was nothing short of a disaster. Not only were the finals a low scoring affair (the United States snagged gold from Canada in a yawn-inducing 19-8 game), but the conditions were a mess. Part of the problem was Germany's venue: the game was played outdoors. On a dirt court. In the pouring rain! Playing on mud made dribbling and bounce-passes impossible. Things weren't much easier for the fans. A lack of seating forced all (approximately 1,000) spectators to stand and watch in the rain.

3. Paris takes Games to a New Low

As bad as Germany's basketball planning was, the event barely holds a candle to the 1900 Paris Olympics, which were held in conjunction with the World's Fair and spread out over five months. Take the marathon, for instance, which was rife with logistical nightmares. The event was run through the city's active streets, complete with pedestrians and bicyclists. Worse still, several competitors got lost because the course was so poorly marked. Of course, the long race was just one of the many memorable events, including several that would never be seen again. The 1900 Olympics were the only Games to feature such time-wasters as pigeon shooting and swimming through an obstacle course "“ which included swimming under boats.

4. John Boland wins an Audience Participation Award

The first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896 and yielded perhaps the most unlikely champion in Olympic history. A student at Oxford, John Boland traveled to Greece as a spectator to take in the excitement. But a friend on the Olympic Committee had signed him up for the tennis competition. Despite a lack of proper attire, the plucky Boland decided to go ahead and play (in his dress shoes, no less) and actually won.

5. Golfer Brings Home Gold (without ever knowing it?!)

Margaret Ives Abbott was the first American woman to win a gold medal. Unfortunately, she lived her entire life without ever knowing what she had accomplished. Since the aforementioned 1900 Paris events were spread out informally over several months, de-emphasizing their Olympic status, she simply thought she had won a nine-hole golf tournament in Paris.

6. The Only Case where "Slow and Steady" Actually Worked

The 1904 Olympic Marathon in St. Louis was perhaps the most brutal event in Olympic history. On a sweltering hot summer day, marathon runners took off on an unpaved dusty course, following pace cars and inhaling exhaust. Many runners had to withdraw to receive medical attention, and even the winner, American Thomas Hicks, needed repeated medical care both during and after the race. And by "medical care," we mean strychnine and brandy. Of course, our favorite tale from the Games is that of Felix Carvajal, a Cuban who took "The Tortoise" approach to running the race. Despite stopping to chat with spectators and breaking to pick and eat fruit from an orchard (which made him sick), Carvajal still managed to finish in fourth place.

7. And just a word on the Games' (harsh) origins

The ancient Olympic Games served as the basis for our modern Olympics, and fortunately the whole "competing in the nude" thing wasn't the only custom left to history. Athletes that arrived late to compete were fined, with the only acceptable excuses being shipwreck, weather or pirates. Athletes that were caught cheating were also fined, but were allowed to keep their winnings. But married women caught watching the Games got it the worst: they were executed. Of course, that probably had something to do with the whole competing in the nude thing.

And let's not forget three of our favorite Olympic athletes. Swede Oscar Swahn won a silver medal in a deer-shooting event at the 1920 Olympics at the age of 72! In 1904, American gymnast George Eyser won six medals (three gold) despite having a wooden left leg, which is even more amazing. But Hungarian pistol shooter Karoly Takacs taught himself how to shoot left-handed after his right (shooting) hand was shattered by a grenade, and then went on to win the rapid-fire shooting event at the 1948 Olympics. He gets our gold.

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Justin Feinstein is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com. Besides the Olympics, he also knows a lot about weird medical conditions, New York restaurants and keeping infants entertained. You should read his blog: Guardedly Optimistic.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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