CLOSE
Original image

10 Tales of Warm-Weather Winter Olympians

Original image

The Winter Olympics are traditionally dominated by athletes from countries where winter brings freezing temperatures and snow, but that hasn't stopped a number of athletes from more tropical climates from infiltrating the ranks of the (c)old guard. From the Jamaican bobsled team to an Indian luger, here are 10 stories of warm-weather Winter Olympians, including a few who will compete in Vancouver next month.

1. The Jamaican Bobsled Team

Perhaps the most famous of all warm-weather Winter Olympians, the Jamaican bobsled team that inspired the 1993 film Cool Runnings made its debut in Calgary in 1988. Republican politician George Fitch, a former U.S. government attaché in Kingston who is currently serving as the mayor of Warrenton, Va., founded the original team. Three team members were in the military and had unsuccessfully tried out for the Jamaican national track and field team. "Jamaica has great athletes, and bobsled is the winter sport that best coincides with the athletic skills you find there," Fitch said in 1988. "I only wanted to do this if we could be competitive and respectable. This is not a joke." To offset the cost of its training and travel, the team sold copies of its official reggae song, "Hobbin' and A-Bobbin'," as well as T-shirts and sweatshirts. Jamaica's four-man team crashed and finished last in Calgary and didn't fare much better in 1992. The team showed dramatic improvement in 1994, finishing 14th, ahead of the United States.

2. The Snow Leopard

snow-leopardRemember the name Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong. You're bound to hear it again during NBC's telecast of the Vancouver Games. The skier, nicknamed the Snow Leopard, is the first Ghanaian to qualify for the Winter Olympics. Born in Scotland while his father was teaching geography at Glasgow University, Nkrumah-Acheampong grew up in West Africa, where his only exposure to snow was on television. He moved to the UK in 2000 and learned to ski on an artificial slope after taking a job as a receptionist at an indoor skiing center in England. The Snow Leopard set his sights on the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, but crashed in his final qualifying race and narrowly missed the cut. He dedicated himself to improving his skills in the years that followed and that perseverance paid off when he officially qualified for Vancouver last March. Nkrumah-Acheampong has no delusions of competing for a medal. "I am a very realistic person and I know there is virtually no chance of that," he recently told the Vancouver Sun. "I rather want to show people that you can do something when you come from a zero skier to qualifying for the Olympics in six years."

3. Grandma Luge

lugeAnne Abernathy graduated from American University in 1975 with a degree in theater arts and performed as a singer at nightclubs for several years before discovering luge on a trip to Lake Placid in 1983. Twenty-three years and six trips to the Winter Olympics later, she retired as the oldest female athlete to compete in the Winter Games. Abernathy, who lived in Florida but had dual-citizenship in the Virgin Islands, overcame lymphatic carcinoma to finish 16th at her first Winter Olympics in 1988. At 34, Abernathy was older than most of her competition in Calgary, and was given the nickname "Grandma Luge" during the early 1990s. During a 2001 World Cup race in Germany, Abernathy suffered brain damage in a crash that split her helmet open and left her unconscious for 20 minutes. Thanks to innovative brain biofeedback therapy, Abernathy recovered in time for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Abernathy was prepared to make her sixth Winter Olympics appearance in Turin, but broke her wrist during a training run. While she was unable to start her event, she filed an application with the Court of Arbitration for Sport to be reinstated on the Olympic starters list. The committee agreed to include Abernathy's name on the starters list, making her women's record for Winter Olympic appearances official.

4. "¨The Nike Project"¨

nike-projectPhilip Boit was a middle distance runner with no skiing experience when Nike approached him and one of his countrymen, Henry Bitok, in 1996 with an interesting proposal: move to Finland and train for the 1998 Winter Olympics on the shoe company's dime. Nike reportedly paid $200,000 for Boit and Bitok's lodging and a Finnish coach. Boit ultimately represented Kenya in Nagano, with Bitok serving as the alternate. He finished last in the 10-kilometer classic race, but was involved in one of the more memorable scenes of the 1998 Games. Norwegian Bjorn Daehlie won the race and waited 20 minutes for Boit to cross the finish line, greeting him with a hug. "Keep up what you're doing," Daehlie told Boit. "You're a champion, too."

While some criticized Nike for making a mockery of the Olympics in the name of stealth marketing, Boit, whose hat, collar, and sweater all bore the ubiquitous Nike swoosh, was moved by the experience, even naming one of his sons Daehlie. Nike terminated its sponsorship of Boit after the 1999 Nordic skiing World Championships, but Boit continued to dry train in Kenya. He participated in the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, finishing ahead of three competitors, and competed again at the 2006 Games in Turin. Boit, whose uncle won the bronze medal in the 800 meters at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, will race in Vancouver, where he hopes to finish respectably before contemplating retirement.

5. The Underdog Advocate

"¨Lamine Gueye was enjoying a career as a model and actor, having landed a small role in the James Bond film Moonraker, when he founded the Senegalese Ski Federation in 1979. Five years later, Gueye became the first athlete from Senegal to compete in the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. After his first run, Gueye told reporters, "We have no word for downhill in Senegalese because we have no mountains. I was so afraid I almost threw up. I have fully tested the safety measures and can tell you that they work."

Gueye competed at the 1992 and 1994 Games as well, and has been critical of the International Olympic Committee's decision to make qualifying standards stricter after 1992—an effort to weed out some of the less polished athletes from countries without a rich history of winter sports. "The Olympic philosophy is that the whole world takes part," Gueye told Reuters in 2008. "You have the best in the world but you also have representatives from the lesser countries."

6. The Luger Who Dripped Blood

"¨Gueye wasn't the only competitor who seemed out of place in Sarajevo. Physicist George Tucker, a doctoral student at Wesleyan University, competed in luge as the only representative from his native Puerto Rico. Tucker, who lost a lot of skin bouncing off of the track walls, later described himself as "the luger who dripped blood." He finished last at his first Winter Olympics, but was wildly popular with the media and fans. Tucker, who was larger than the average luger, once recalled a story during his training prior to the 1984 Winter Olympics when a track worker accused him of being a "fat guy trying to pass himself off as an Olympic athlete."

7. The Professor"¨

professor-olympicsPrawat Nagvajara stood a better chance of becoming an international rock star than an Olympic cross-country skier. But against all odds, the professor of engineering at Drexel University became the first athlete to represent Thailand at the Winter Olympics at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Nagvajara played keyboard in a teenage rock band while growing up in Thailand and didn't see snow until he was 18. He said he was inspired to take up cross-country skiing and compete in the Olympics after watching Boit compete in 1998. Nagvajara qualified for Salt Lake City by competing at internationally sanctioned races and earning the blessing of the Thai Olympic Committee. He was disqualified in the 30-kilometer race after being lapped and finished 68th out of 71 racers in the 1.5-kilometer sprint. Nagvajara competed again in 2006."¨

8. The Messenger

the-messenger
Isaac Menyoli took up cross-country skiing in 1997 when he moved from his native Cameroon to the United States to study architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Menyoli became the first Cameroonian to compete in the Winter Olympics at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, where he finished last in the 15-kilometer race. Menyoli didn't care much about his time, however. He competed in the necessary five Olympic qualifying races and spent $15,000 of his own money on training in order to use the Olympic platform to spread an important message to Cameroonian TV and radio stations about the AIDS epidemic affecting his country. "I want to ski for a reason," he told Time in 2002. "I want to tell people that they really have to watch out, that AIDS is serious."

9. "¨The Chosen One of 1.1 Billion"¨

luge-indiaWhen members of the International Luge Federation were recruiting potential athletes from warm-weather countries to train to compete at the 1998 Nagano Games, one of the young men they chose was India's Shiva Keshavan. The ILF was looking to grow its sport and they saw potential in Keshavan. After all, he was familiar with snow. Keshavan, who had learned to ski while growing up at the foot of the Himalayas, was flown to Austria, where he and several other athletes recruited by the ILF were introduced to luge. Keshavan was the first Indian to compete at the Winter Olympics and finished 28th in Nagano. He finished 33rd in Salt Lake City, 26th in Turin, and, after winning a silver medal at the Asian Championships last year, will compete in Vancouver next month as part of a three-man team from India.

10. The Prince

"¨Prince Albert II of Monaco competed in bobsled in a record five Winter Olympics from 1988 to 2002 before becoming ruler of Monaco upon the death of his father in 2005. The Prince, who serves on the International Olympic Committee, refused any royal treatment at the Olympics, opting instead to stay in the athletes village each time. His brakeman at the Calgary Games in 1988 was a casino croupier.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Opening Ceremony
fun
arrow
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
Original image
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:

501069-OpeningCeremony2.jpg

Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

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]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES