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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

lake-placid-1932
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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