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7 Dubious Ways to Gain an Olympic Edge

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The Winter Olympics are supposed to be a shining beacon of sportsmanship and goodwill, but things don't always work out that way. Sure, you know all about Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, but there have been all sorts of other scandals in which an Olympian used dubious tactics to gain an advantage. Some tricks were successful, others failed, and some of them deserve gold medals for shear gall.

1. See a Mysterious Black Figure

Frenchman Jean-Claude Killy was on his way to sweeping the three alpine skiing events at the 1968 Games in Grenoble if he could take the slalom gold, and his run in the event had been blisteringly fast. Killy's Austrian rival, Karl Schranz, wasn't faring so well. In the middle of his slalom run, he stopped and claimed that a mysterious black-clad figure had crossed his path. Schranz demanded a second run with no distractions, and this time he beat Killy to take the gold.


Race officials huddled, though, and realized that Schranz had actually missed a gate well before the alleged black-clad figure crossed his path. The judges eventually decided to disqualify Schranz for missing the gate. On top of that, none of them had even seen this mysterious figure scamper across the course. The officials yanked Schranz's medal and gave it to Killy.

This episode is still quite controversial. Killy backers swear that Schranz made up the story about the black-clad figure after realizing he'd missed a gate, while Schranz fans claim that the French judges or police snuck a man across the course to distract Schranz and help local boy Killy.

2. Accuse the Competitors of Loafing

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Americans can do a lot of things well, but we haven't always been the most gracious Olympic hosts. Take the speed skating at the 1932 Games at Lake Placid. European skaters were used to skating one-on-one around the track in this event, which is how you'll see things work in Vancouver. When they showed up for the Games, however, they were informed that they would all be on the ice at the same time and would start in a giant pack—a style that's now used in short track skating but was then a totally unfamiliar format outside of North America.


The Europeans were already behind the 8-ball thanks to these weird starts, but things got even stranger in the second heat of the 1500 meter event. The judges stopped the heat when it was halfway over, berated the competitors for "loafing," and restarted the race. No big surprise: Americans swept the four speed skating gold medals, and only two Europeans medaled.

3. Whack the Coach

Although hockey can be a violent game, its players usually adhere to a certain code of ethics regarding fighting. Of course, some players take a pretty loose interpretation of these unwritten rules. Just ask Sweden's Karl Oberg. During a match against Canada at the 1964 Games, Oberg lost his cool and smacked Canadian coach David Bauer in the head with his stick. That sounds pretty bad, but it gets worse: Bauer's full title was Father David Bauer. He was also an ordained Catholic priest.

Father David apparently preferred divine retribution to pulling a sweater over the other guy's head. He ordered his players not to retaliate against Oberg, and although they were all itching to drop the gloves and go after the thug, the Canadians left him alone and cruised to a 3-2 win.

4. Break Out the Citrus

It's not just Olympians who can be a bit uncouth; the fans can get out of control, too. At the 1956 Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, spectators were not happy about the scores the German figure skating pair of Marika Kilius and Franz Ningel received after their performance, so they bombarded the judges and the referee with a barrage of oranges. The citrus artillery continued and the ice had to be cleared three times. The German pair still only finished in fourth place.

5. Get Physical

Short track speed skater Cathy Turner didn't take the ice to make friends. The American skater repeatedly bumped and clipped skates with other competitors throughout the 1994 Winter Olympics, but her most controversial moment came in the final of the 500 meters. With two laps to go, she passed Chinese skater Zhang Yanmei. During the pass she brushed Zhang's thigh, but Turner went on to win the gold.

An enraged Zhang protested that Turner hadn't just brushed her thigh; the American had actually grabbed her. Judges couldn't tell from the video replays, so Turner's medal stood. Turner, who also worked as a singer, then wowed the crowd with one of her compositions, a song called "Sexy Kinky Tomboy."

6. Send in the Professional Amateurs

While you'll be able to see your favorite NHL players take the ice in Vancouver, professionals weren't always welcome at the Games. Prior to the 1998 Games, ice hockey players were supposed to be amateurs, so most countries sent their best players who hadn't made the pro ranks yet.

Of course, Communist countries found a loophole in this system. The Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and other countries declared that there weren't any professional hockey players in their countries. Their teams were made up of amateurs employed by the government, so they weren't technically NHL-style pro hockey players.

This flouting of the rules so enraged other countries that Canada skipped the hockey events at the 1972 and 1976 Games, with Sweden joining the boycott for the 1976 Winter Olympics.

7. Buy Off a Judge

time-olympicsWhen the Canadian pair Jamie Sale and David Pelletier skated at the 2002 Games, they performed so marvelously that television commentators and fans felt certain they were a lock for the gold. However, when the scores came out, it turned out that their Russian rivals won despite an obvious technical error in their routine.


A little bit of digging showed that the judges from Russia, China, Poland, Ukraine, and France had all felt the clearly inferior Russians' routine was gold-worthy. The French judge, Marie-Reine Le Gougne then admitted that she'd only voted for the Russians because her boss at the French skating union twisted her arm. There was allegedly a deal in place to boost the French ice dancing team's scores in exchange for a little assist for the Russian pairs skaters.

In the end, the Canadian pair had their medals upgraded to gold, but the Russians got to keep their golds as well.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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