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The Weird & Scary History of Winter Olympic Mascots

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Some of them are adorable. Some of them are atrocious. All of them are, on some level, creepy. They are the mascots of the Winter Olympic Games, and these are their stories.

1968: Schuss "“ Grenoble

It's fitting that the abstract character that represented the birth of the modern Olympic mascot became known as the Skiing Sperm. Schuss, the tri-colored unofficial mascot of the 1968 Winter Games, was depicted on pins and toys, but wasn't personified by a life-size plush character. Schuss's name was derived from an alpine skiing term for a fast and straight downhill run.

1976: Schneemann "“ Innsbruck

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The 1972 Winter Games didn't have a mascot, so the first official Winter Olympics mascot didn't debut until 1976. In addition to giving Austrian children nightmares, Schneemann, which is either German for "snowman" or "anthropomorphic snowball with a carrot nose," represented the games of simplicity.

1980: Roni "“ Lake Placid

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A live raccoon named Rocky was originally chosen as the mascot for the 1980 Winter Games—but he died. So the Lake Placid organizing committee turned to graphic designer Donald Moss. A freelancer whose illustrations had appeared in Sports Illustrated, Moss studied at the Pratt Institute for Design after getting out of the Marines and later claimed to have created ABC's logo. ("I never did get credit for that," he told the New York Times in 1979.) Moss and his son also designed the logo for the U.S. Ski Team and 11 stamps for the U.S. Postal Service. He agreed that a raccoon was a natural choice for a mascot for the Lake Placid Games. "The mask across its eyes makes it very similar to the mask and goggles and caps worn by Olympic skiers," Moss said. "And of course the raccoon looks cuddly, a kind of message you want to impart." Moss's raccoon, Roni, was named after Lake Placid's Adirondack Mountains.

1984: Vucko "“ Sarajevo

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Vucko, pronounced vootch-ko, was the wolf cub mascot of the 1984 Winter Games. A group that included Olympic organizing committee members, artists, a poet, and a sociologist narrowed the list of 870 potential mascots for the Sarajevo Games down to six. Vucko received more than 70 percent of the popular vote in the ensuing poll, which was conducted through Yugoslavia's major newspapers. The other finalists were a snowball, a mountain goat, a chipmunk, a lamb, and a porcupine.

According to the Sarajevo Olympic committee's official bulletin, Vucko was a symbol of the triumph of good over evil. "The happy Vucko is the symbol of man's centuries-old efforts to conquer nature, to gain friendship from a beast, to make a wolf become Vucko." Whatever it symbolized, the mascot became ubiquitous. "Grandparents used to tell stories of the wolves in the mountains around Sarajevo to scare children," a city official said. "Now, they fall asleep with Vucko in their arms. There isn't a child without one."

1988: Hidy and Howdy "“ Calgary

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Hidy and Howdy, whose names were chosen from more than 5,000 entries in a contest sponsored by the Calgary Zoo, were the first sibling mascots to represent the Winter Games. The brother and sister polar bears sported classic cowboy gear and graced signs and merchandise throughout Calgary in 1988.

A group of 85 high school students made appearances in Hidy and Howdy costumes in the years leading up to the Games, adhering to a set of rules developed by mascot committee chairman Lane Kranenburg. In addition to a rule that is common to most mascots—no verbal communication while in costume—one newspaper report indicated that Hidy and Howdy could not attend events where alcohol was served, stand near food serving areas, or hug anyone in a black suit. Hidy and Howdy, it would seem, had a shedding problem.

1992: Magique "“ Albertville

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The Olympic committee rejected Albertville's initial mascot, a mountain goat named Chamois, opening the door for Magique. Designed by French artist Philippe Mairesse, Magique was a star-shaped imp that signified youth, dreams, and imagination. "There's an old Savoy song, 'Etoile des Neiges' ('Star of the Snows'), and some people think it refers to that," an Olympic hostess told a reporter in 1992. "And the cap is like that of a young chimney sweep."

1994: Haakon and Kristin "“ Lillehammer

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Haakon and Kristin, a pair of figures from the great age of Norwegian medieval history, were chosen as the mascots for the 1994 Winter Games. Prince Haakon Haakonson was the son of King Sverre Sigurdson, who led the Birkebeiners during the civil war that ravaged Norway in the late 12th century. Princess Kristin was Haakon's paternal aunt. After the civil war and King Sverre's death in 1202, the rival Baglers were determined to kill the infant Prince Haakon. He was carried to safety across the mountains from Lillehammer and raised in nearby Trondheim, ultimately ascending the throne in 1217 and ruling until 1263. Three boys and three girls were chosen from 150 to personify Haakon and Kristin, respectively, for the two years leading up to the Games.

1998: The Snowlets "“ Nagano

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The original mascot for the Nagano Games was a weasel named Snowple, but he was replaced by four snow owls named Sukki, Nokki, Lekki, and Tsukki. Collectively, they were known as the Snowlets, a combination of the first letter, or letters, in each owl's name. Owls are often associated with Athena in Greek mythology, and the Snowlets symbolized the seasons and the four-year Olympic cycle. "Owls are cherished by people around the world as the embodiment of the wisdom of the world," one Nagano Olympics official said.

2002: Powder, Copper, and Coal "“ Salt Lake City

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The Salt Lake organizing committee chose three animals from Native American folklore to represent the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius (Swifter, Higher, Stronger) for the 2002 Games. According to legend, the snowshoe hare once cooled the burning earth by running up a mountain and shooting an arrow at the sun, dropping it lower in the sky. When the earth was dark and frozen, the coyote climbed the highest mountain to steal a flame from the fire people. And no matter how hard they tried, hunters could not defeat the mighty bear. The names chosen for the three mascots—Powder, Copper, and Coal—were symbolic of Utah's skiing and mining heritage.

2006: Neve and Gliz "“ Turin

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Portuguese designer Pedro Albuquerque won an international contest sponsored by the Turin organizing committee and created Neve and Gliz, the snowball and ice cube mascots that represented the 2006 Winter Games. Neve is Italian for snow and Gliz is a shortened version of the Italian word for ice. Introduced 500 days before the Games, the duo was said to represent "the harmony and elegance of the movements made in sport" and, according to Albuquerque, "Olympic values like friendship, fair play and the spirit of competition."

2010: Sumi, Quatchi, Miga "“ Vancouver

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The mascots for the Vancouver Games are mythical characters inspired by the legends of the First Nations peoples of Canada. Sumi, whose name comes from the Salish term for "guardian spirit," has Thunderbird wings, the legs of a black bear, and the hat of the Orca whale. Quatchi is a sasquatch, a popular figure in Pacific Northwest legends. Miga is a sea bear, part killer whale and part Kermode bear, a rare species native to British Columbia.

There is a fourth mascot, but contrary to what a Polish newspaper and a Google image search would lead you to believe, it's not the Internet meme Pedobear. Rather, Mukmuk the marmot is the first Olympic mascot sidekick. He won't appear in Vancouver because marmots hibernate during the winter, but you can read all about him on the official Vancouver Olympic Games website.

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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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