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Boycotting and Banning: The Real Olympic Sports

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"If this is an Olympic year, it must be time for a boycott," Tony Kornheiser wrote in the
New York Times in 1976. That year, many African nations were incensed that New Zealand's rugby team had toured ostracized South Africa. Would Africa boycott the Montreal Games in retaliation?

Kornheiser's observation hasn't aged a bit. As the opening ceremonies for the Beijing Games approach, the sounds of "boycott" are being heard again—over China's heavy-handed rule of Tibet and deadly response to protests in Lhasa, and in retribution for China's snug relations with Sudan, whose government is blamed for the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Several politicians—including Sen. Hillary Clinton—have urged President Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies. (The President has announced he will be attending as planned.)

Earlier this year in Paris, protesters forced the relay team to extinguish the Olympic Torch five times, and then take it to its final destination by bus—a humiliating ride for the flame of humanity's highest ideals. Does it presage a boycott next month? Looking back at the history of the modern Olympiad, it's clear that, all along, boycotting and banning have been the real sports.

1920 "“ Antwerp, Belgium
The modern Olympics Games began in 1896, and The Great War had forced their cancellation in 1916. With the resumption of the Olympic spirit in 1920, the defeated powers—Germany (where the 1916 Games were to have been held), Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey—did not receive an invitation to play. The brand-new Soviet Union, recovering from its own revolution and civil war, and busy with the Polish-Soviet War, chose not to attend.

1936 "“ Berlin, Germany
Well, Hitler promised not to exclude German Jews from the national team and that there would be no over-the-top Nazi propaganda. So, characteristically, the Reich Sports Field was draped in swastikas. Only fencer Helene Mayer, who was part Jewish, was allowed to play for Germany. She won a silver medal.


There had been debates over boycotting the Games, particularly in the United States. But in the end, it was left to individual athletes whether to attend. Many Jewish athletes skipped Berlin. As is well known, sprinter and long-jumper Jesse Owens, an African American, took four gold medals away from the Master Race. This supposedly embarrassed Hitler—whose team took the most medals—but not enough to keep him from annexing the Sudetenland, invading Poland or starting World War II.

1948 "“ London, UK
In a near replay of 1920, the recent World War's losers—Germany and Japan—were not invited, and the Soviet Union chose not to attend. The new State of Israel also was not invited, for fear that its presence would generate an Arab boycott.

1956 "“ Melbourne, Australia
For the first Southern Hemisphere Olympics, countries could choose from a menu of reasons to boycott. Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq boycotted to protest the Israeli invasion of the Sinai Peninsula. The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland boycotted to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary to reassert its control there.

In Melbourne, a water polo match between the USSR and Hungary quickly turned into a fist fight. The Soviet team, lacking tanks, lost to Hungary 4-0. Meanwhile, China boycotted the Games after the International Olympic Committee recognized Taiwan. Oddly, East and West Germany competed as a single team, and nobody boycotted.

1964 "“ Tokyo, Japan
Indonesia and North Korea boycotted after some of their athletes were declared ineligible. That was because they had participated in the 1963 Games of the New Emerging Forces in Jakarta, Indonesia. Taiwan and Israel had been banned from the Jakarta Games, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ruled that if you played in Jakarta, you couldn't play in Tokyo. The IOC also banned South Africa because of its racist policies.

1972 "“ Munich, West Germany
munich.jpgNo boycotts, just hostage-taking and murder. In a pre-dawn raid on the Olympic Village, eight Palestinian terrorists killed two members of the Israeli team and held another nine hostage. The standoff ended 18 hours later at an airfield, where the terrorists murdered the remaining hostages in a shootout with West German police. Five terrorists and one policeman also were killed.

Rather than call off the games on account of tragedy, IOC President Avery Brundage opted to continue the Olympics after a daylong memorial service.

1976 "“ Montreal, Quebec
It all began with the world softball championship, which New Zealand hosted and in which South Africa participated. Then New Zealand decided to send its rugby team on a tour of South Africa. An outraged Supreme Council for Sport in Africa demanded that New Zealand be banned from the Montreal Games. When the IOC refused, 26 nations, most in Africa, staged a boycott.

Taiwan boycotted too, because Canada refused to let its athletes into the country "unless they agree not to march behind their Republic of China flag or play their national anthem," the New York Times reported. Canada recognized the People's Republic of China, while the IOC recognized Taiwan as the Republic of China. Meanwhile, the People's Republic, which hadn't participated since 1952, sat out the Montreal Games.

1980 "“ Moscow, USSR
The Big Boycott. Outraged by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous year, U.S. President Jimmy Carter led the call for a boycott of the Moscow Games, and threatened to revoke the passport of any American athlete who tried to reach Moscow. Some 60 nations joined the boycott. Among those that didn't: Great Britain, France, Italy and Sweden.

052184_large-SI.jpg1984 "“ Los Angeles, California
The "I know you are but what am I?" Boycott. Outraged by being boycotted by the United States four years earlier, the Soviet Union accused the U.S. of using the Games "for political purposes" and for "stirring up anti-Soviet propaganda" and of having a "cavalier attitude to security of Russian athletes," and announced that it would boycott the Los Angeles Games. Fourteen nations followed Moscow's lead, including most of the Eastern Bloc and Cuba. Romania was the exception. China, having never been boycotted, participated in the Summer Games for the first time since 1952.

1988 "“ Seoul, South Korea
Cuba was at the forefront of the '88 boycott. Along with Ethiopia, Cuba acted in solidarity with North Korea, which opted to boycott the Olympics after its demand that it co-host the Games was turned down. In negotiations reminiscent of its more recent haggling over developing its nuclear capabilities, "North Korea said earlier this week that it would not attend if its demand to co-host the games were not met," the New York Times reported in January 1988. "In its most recent proposal, offered last June, the IOC agreed to allow North Korea to stage five events. North Korea insisted upon at least eight, as well as greater recognition as a host country."

1992 "“ Barcelona, Spain
Nobody boycotted. Nobody was banned. Where's the sport in that?

David Holzel is an occasional contributor to mental_floss.
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]