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The Origins of 10 Winter Olympic Sports

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The Winter Olympics are still a week and a half away, but it's never too early to start getting warmed up. Let's take a look at the origins of some of the events you'll be enjoying from Vancouver.

1. Figure Skating

Skating has been around for centuries, but figure skating's expressive movements are actually somewhat more recent than you might suspect. The athletic, acrobatic version of the sport wasn't popularized until the mid-19th century. Jackson Haines, an American with a ballet background, wowed European crowds with his graceful movements and thrilling jumps while also making another key breakthrough: he choreographed his routines and set them to music. This so-called "international style" of skating caught on in Vienna and other European cities and gave rise to the kind of figure skating we'll be watching in the Olympics.

2. Biathlon

biathlonAs you might expect from a sport that involves a rifle, biathlon has military roots. Norwegian soldiers have been running combined skiing-and-shooting races since at least 1767, and the Norwegian military sponsored the first modern race of this kind in 1921. In those days, though, it wasn't quite like the biathlon we know. Instead, it was an event called "military patrol" that involved a four-man patrol going through the event in heavy backpacks.


Military patrol was actually a medal event at the 1924 Winter Olympics, but it quickly fell off of the program and was only a demonstration sport at the 1928, 1936 and 1948 Games. The idea of individuals racing on skis with guns gained popularity in Europe throughout the 1950s, though, and by 1960, the races were back on the Olympic program as the individual biathlon event.

3. Curling

The event that loves to confuse American spectators traces its roots back to medieval Scotland. It wasn't quite the strategic game it is now when it got its start, though; early curling basically consisted of Scottish men sliding flat-bottomed rocks along icy ponds. It was fun, though, and Scottish soldiers brought the game to Canada, where it really took off. (Some estimates have upwards of 90% of the world's curlers living in Canada.)

4, 5 & 6. Luge, Skeleton, and Bobsled

The three events that require an icy track have a common origin in one man's brain. In the late 1860s, Swiss hotelier Caspar Badrutt had a problem: no one wanted to spend the winter at his chilly resort in St. Moritz. Rather than spend the winter with an empty hotel, Badrutt convinced some of his regulars that it would be fun to spend some time at a "winter resort," and English guests started flocking to St. Moritz during the cold months.

olympic-winterThe guests found a particularly exciting way to pass their time when they started modifying delivery boys' sleds and zipping down the town's streets. (If you lashed two of these sleds together, you had the precursor to the modern bobsled.) All of this sledding was great fun, but Badrutt soon had a new problem on his hands: since the only place to run the sleds was on the city's streets, sledders kept careening into pedestrians.

To combat this dangerous problem, Badrutt built an icy halfpipe track to keep the sleds off of the streets. Within a decade, the sledding events had grown into competitive sports, and bobsled was on the program for the first Winter Olympics in 1924.

7. Snowboarding

Although snowboards may have been around in some form since the 19th century, they didn't become an actual commercial product until the 1960s. In 1965, Sherman Poppen, a Michigan dad, bound two skis together to make a snowboard-like ride for his daughter. The device, which he dubbed "the Snurfer," sold nearly a million units over the next 10 years.

By the end of the 1970s, many other surfers and skiers had made little innovations and improvements to the design, including bindings to hold the rider's boots, which helped the sport's popularity explode during the '80s and '90s.

8. Ice hockey

Ice hockey's origins are a bit more obscure than some of its counterparts at the Games. Games that evolved into the similar ice sport of bandy have been played since the 10th century, and reports of a hockey-like game exist in the history of Eastern Canada's indigenous Mikmaq people.

Whatever its exact origins, hockey really took off in 19th-century Canada. British soldiers and Canadian schoolboys alike enjoyed playing the game on the country's frozen ponds and lakes, and during the 1870s a student group at McGill University wrote down the first set of hockey rules. Some of these rules would be familiar to modern watchers—they replaced the ball with a wooden puck—while others would make the game seem a bit hectic, like allowing nine players per side.

Even the origins of the name "hockey" are murky. Some scholars contend that the name is derived from hoquet, a French word for a shepherd's crook that would resemble a hockey stick. Others argue that it was so named because it was "Colonel Hockey's game," a tribute to an 1850s-era British officer who was stationed in Nova Scotia and used the game to keep his men in shape.

9. Short Track Speed Skating

Traditional speed skating involves pairs of timed skaters making their way around an oval track. However, in North America, it was common for indoor races with shorter tracks to feature mass starts where all the racers took off at once. The mass starts and the tracks that had been shortened to accommodate indoor arenas led to exciting races, and in 1967 the International Skating Union began to recognize the event.

10. Ski Jumping

ski-jumpLike the biathlon, ski jumping owes a big debt to the Norwegian military. In 1809, Olaf Rye, who would later go on to become a major-general, was fooling around on some skis in front of his fellow soldiers and managed to jump 30 feet into the air. The thrilling new sport quickly spread throughout Norway, with jumpers getting increasingly ambitious. In 1862, the first organized competition took place in Trysil, Norway, and in 1879, the first annual installment of the wildly popular Husebyrennet jumping competition took Oslo by storm.

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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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