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Who Else Has Lit the Olympic Cauldron?

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The Vancouver Organizing Committee has managed to keep the identity of the person who will light the Olympic cauldron during today's opening ceremonies under wraps. Many have speculated that Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky will run the final leg of the Olympic Torch Relay, a tradition that dates to the 1936 Summer Games and begins with the lighting of the torch in the months before the Olympics in Olympia, Greece.

Others predict that Betty Fox, the mother of the late Terry Fox, the one-legged humanitarian who ran more than 3,000 miles across his native Canada in 1980 to raise money for cancer research, will light the flame that symbolizes the theft of fire from Zeus by Prometheus. Whoever emerges with the torch from the tunnel at BC Place Stadium will join a select group of Olympic greats, schoolchildren, and even royalty, who have lit the Olympic cauldron at past Winter Games.

Oslo, 1952

The Olympic flame has been part of the modern Olympic Games since the 1928 Summer Olympics, but the lighting ceremony wasn't introduced at the Winter Olympics until 1952. Norwegian Eigil Nansen, the grandson of polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, lit the Olympic flame that year. Fridtjof Nansen was the first man to cross Greenland on skis.

Cortina d'Ampezzo, 1956

1956-torch

During the lighting ceremony, Italian speed skater Guido Caroli tripped over a loose public address system wire as he carried the Olympic flame around the main rink for the 1956 Winter Games. Caroli didn't see the wire because he was looking toward the Presidential box, but he regained his balance in time to avoid an embarrassing fall. "I didn't let the flame go out," he later said. "Remember that I didn't let the flame go out."

Squaw Valley, 1960

Andrea Mead Lawrence, a retired Olympic skiing champion, delivered the torch to American speed skater and defending gold medalist in the 500m, Ken Henry, who lit the Olympic flame at the base of the Tower of Nations.

Innsbruck, 1964

Josef Rieder, an Austrian alpine skier, lit the Olympic flame in 1964.

Grenoble, 1968

Alain Calmat, who became a surgeon after his figure skating career was over, won the silver medal at the 1964 Olympics and had the honor of lighting the Olympic flame in his native France.

Sapporo, 1972

1972-torch

Hideki Takada, a 16-year-old Sapporo high school student, was the final torchbearer at the 1972 Winter Games.

Innsbruck, 1976

To remember the 1964 Games held in Innsbruck and usher in the start of the 1976 Games, two flames were lit simultaneously by a pair of Austrian Olympic champions: Josef Feistmantl (luge) and Christl Haas (skiing).

Lake Placid, 1980

Dr. Charles Morgan Kerr, a psychiatrist from Tucson, Ariz., was one of 52 runners who carried the Olympic torch to Lake Placid from Virginia, where it had arrived from Greece. The 51 other relay runners elected Kerr to light the torch at the opening ceremonies.

Sarajevo, 1984

Yugoslavia's top female figure skater, 21-year-old Sanda Dubravcic, lit the Olympic flame in Sarajevo after 1,600 other torchbearers participated in the Olympic torch relay.

Calgary, 1988

Seventh-grader Robyn Perry, the last of 6,250 Canadians to carry the torch before the 1988 Games, stood on her tiptoes to light the flame at the opening ceremonies. Perry, 12, a talented figure skater, was randomly selected from a group of eight other students as a symbol of youth. The Montreal Gazette caught up with Perry, who now goes by Robyn Ainsworth, last year. "It shaped who I was," said Ainsworth, who is the director of We Care Home Health Services in Calgary. "I got so many life experiences out of it that I don't think I could separate it out from who I now am. It definitely impacted my life."

Albertville, 1992

At least one French journalist described the Albertville organizing committee's decision to have French soccer star Michel Platini run the final leg of the Olympic torch relay as "très bizarre." Platini handed the torch to Francois-Cyrille Grange, a young boy from the Savoie region, who lit the flame.

Lillehammer, 1994

1994-torch

Former Norwegian ski flying champion Ole Gunnar Fidjestol was scheduled to soar into the ski jumping arena carrying the Olympic torch for the opening ceremonies, but was hospitalized after suffering a sprained neck and a mild concussion in a crash during a trial run. "This was not my worst fall, but it was my most embarrassing," said Fidjestol, one of the all-time greats in a sport that differs slightly from ski jumping in that ski fliers take off from a higher plane and soar farther than ski jumpers. Stein Gruben, who had been practicing the jump as Fidjestol's understudy, stepped in and landed the jump perfectly. Gruben handed the torch to blind cross-country skier Catherine Nottingnes, who handed it to Crown Prince Haakon, who lit the flame. Haakon's father and grandfather were former Olympians.

Nagano, 1998

Japanese figure skater Midori Ito, who won a silver medal in Albertville and the 1989 world figure skating championship, lit the flame.

Salt Lake City, 2002

The U.S. hockey team that upset the Soviet Union to win the gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics lit the flame at the end of an inspirational torch relay that featured both Lance Armstrong and Christopher Reeve. Wearing USA hockey jerseys, 1980 U.S. captain Mike Eruzione and his teammates lit the Olympic cauldron after accepting the torch from U.S. skier Picabo Street and 2002 U.S. women's hockey captain Cammi Granato. "I think this is probably the final journey," Eruzione said afterward. "It's hard to imagine yourself being an Olympic athlete and winning a gold medal, then 22 years go by and you carry the torch and light the Olympic flame."

Turin, 2006

Stefania Belmondo, an Italian cross-country skier who won gold in Salt Lake City, lit the flame in Turin.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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