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Strange Paths to Multiple Medals

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You might have seen gymnast Oksana Chusovitina pick up a silver medal for Germany in the women's vault final this weekend, an astounding feat for a 33-year-old mother in a sport dominated by girls half her age. Her age alone would make the story noteworthy, but the tale of Chusovitina joining Germany's team after leaving her native Uzbekistan to seek medical care for her young son is truly inspirational. Coupled with her gold team medal for the Unified Team at the 1992 Games, it also meant that she won an Olympic medal for a second country in her Olympic career, a rare occurrence. (American runner Bernard Lagat, who won medals for Kenya in 2000 and 2004 can do the same in the 5,000 meters later this week.)

Oksana Chusovitina is certainly not the only Olympian to travel an unlikely path to multiple medals. Here are some other notable athletes who either earned medals for multiple countries, won in both the Summer and Winter Games, or excelled in sport and art. (Yes, there used to be medals for stuff like city planning.)

Medals at Both the Summer and Winter Games

Picking up medals at both the Summer and Winter Games is obviously tough, since there's not much overlap between the two sets of events. Since the introduction of the Winter Games in 1924, four people have managed to medal at both sets of Games. (Five if you count Gillis Grafstrom, who won a figure skating medal at the final Summer Games to host the event in 1920 and then medaled in figure skating at the first three Winter Games.)

clara.jpgClara Hughes
Hughes, a Canadian, picked up cycling bronze medals in both the road race and the time trial at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. By 2002 she had returned to speed skating, her original sport, and wrangled a bronze in the 5000 meters at the Winter Games in Salt Lake City. As if that wasn't impressive enough, Hughes added a gold in the 5000 meters and silver in the team pursuit at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin. She's the only athlete in history to win multiple medals at both the Winter and Summer Games.

Christa Luding
There was a precedent for Hughes' cycling-speed skating double play, though. East German skater Luding was an absolute terror on the ice during a career that saw her rack up gold medals at both the 1984 Games in Sarajevo and the 1988 Games in Calgary. She also picked up a silver medal in Calgary. In 1988, Luding hopped on her bike and won a silver medal in the track cycling sprint at the Summer Games in Seoul to become the only person to ever win summer and winter medals in the same year. Not content with these achievements, Luding then returned to the ice to win a speed skating bronze medal at the 1992 Games in Albertville.

Jacob Tullin Thams
Norwegian Thams grabbed the gold in the individual large hill ski jump at the 1924 Games in Chamonix as part of an illustrious ski jumping career that also included a gold in the same event at the 1926 World Championships. He eventually turned his attentions to sailing, though, and at the 1936 Games in Berlin won silver as part of Norway's eight-meter yachting team.

Eddie Eagan
Although Eagan was born to a poor family in Denver, he managed to use his smarts to make it through college at Yale, law school at Harvard, and later study at Oxford. If anyone called Eagan a nerd, though, he could have made them regret it; he also won a boxing gold as a light heavyweight at the 1920 Games in Antwerp. Eagan became a successful lawyer, but his athletic itch persisted. He took up bobsleigh racing and won a gold as part of the American four-man team at the 1932 Games at Lake Placid. He's still the only person to win a gold medal in both the Summer and Winter Games.

Medal Winners in Sports and Arts

From 1912 to 1948, the Olympics weren't solely the home of athletic struggles; competitors also vied for the medals in various artistic disciplines. Artists could earn medals for their sports-inspired works of architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture. The art competition eventually met its doom when organizers realized the artists were professionals and thus not part of the amateur spirit of the Games, but two men managed to snag medals for both sports and arts before an art exhibit replaced the competitive scoring.

"¢ Russian-born, England-based American Walter Winans picked up a pair of medals at the 1908 and 1912 Games as a marksman in the running deer event. He was also serious about sculpture and took home a gold medal in 1912 for his bronze statuette of a horse entitled "An American Trotter."

"¢ Hungarian swimmer Alfred Hajos also pulled off this double. He won two swimming golds at the first modern Games in 1896, and dropped one of the better quips in Olympic history: when the crown prince of Greece asked Hajos where he learned to swim so well, the medalist pithily responded, "In the water." After the Games, Hajos returned to Hungary where he was a dominant track and field athlete and a forward on the national soccer team. He also learned about architecture, the discipline in which he and fellow Hungarian Dezso Lauber won a silver medal in town planning at the 1924 Games in Paris.

Medals for Multiple Countries

chen-jing.jpgNot many other athletes besides Oksana Chusovitina have won medals for multiple countries while their original nation continued fielding teams. One particularly impressive example is Chen Jing, who dominated women's table tennis at the 1988 Games for China, winning both the individual gold and the silver in doubles. She then switched her team allegiances to Chinese Taipei and won a silver in Atlanta and a bronze in Sydney for her new squad.


We'll be watching later this week to see if former Kenyan medalist Bernard Lagat can join the club as he runs the 5,000 meters for the United States.

Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

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technology
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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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