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The Quick 8: 8 Other Olympic Tragedies

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You've no doubt heard about the terrible luge accident that took place before the Olympics' opening ceremony this weekend "“ while on a training run, Georgian Nodar Kumaritashvili was thrown off his luge and struck a support beam at about 89 mph. Sadly, his death isn't the first time tragedy has struck the Olympics. Here are eight other times the Olympic Games have been marred by death.

francisco1. Francisco Lazaro (pictured) was the first fatality of the modern Olympic Games. During the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, Lazaro thought it would help his performance in the marathon if he used wax on his body to curb his sweating. As we know now, the body needs to sweat when it exercises to cool itself down. Without the ability to do so, Lazaro's body overheated. He ended up collapsing with a temperature of nearly 106 degrees Fahrenheit and died the following morning.

2. During the 1960 Summer Games in Rome, a Danish cyclist named Knud Enemark Jensen died after a bad wreck. During the autopsy, a large amount of amphetamines were found in his system. ESPN cites his cause of death as a "combination of doping and exposure."

3. British luge racer Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki died under circumstances eerily similar to that of Nodar Kumaritashvili: his luge crashed during a training run during the 1964 Innsbruck, Austria, Winter Olympics.

4. The 1964 Games were rife with tragedy, as a downhill skier also died that year. Australian Ross Milne was doing a practice run on the course when he ran into a tree. His manager said that Milne was having trouble navigating the course due to how other contestants were congregating on it. He was forced to slow down on a spot that wasn't meant for doing so and ended up being thrown off course, and, ultimately, into the tree.

5. He may not have been an Olympian, but Dr. Jorg Oberhammer was at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games to help treat the Austrian team. Oberhammer, an orthopaedic surgeon, was skiing at the bottom of the hill when he collided with another skier and was knocked into the tracks of a snow-grooming machine. He was crushed and died instantly. Two Swiss competitors witnessed the whole thing "“ one of them withdrew from his event because he was so badly shaken; the other ended up taking the bronze.

6. The snow grooming machines can be quite deadly "“ one claimed a life at the 1992 Albertville, France, Olympics as well. Speed skier Nicolas Bochatay of Switzerland was warming up on a public slope with a teammate when he lost control and crashed into one of the machines. He died shortly thereafter.

7. Thousands of spectators were gathered to watch a concert during the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta when security guard Richard Jewell discovered a bag containing three pipe bombs surrounded by nails. Although it was found in time to get many of the spectators to safety, there were two fatalities when the bomb detonated before the bomb squad could deactivate it: Alice Hawthorne, a Georgia native who was struck in the head with one of the nails; and a Turkish cameraman named Melih Uzunyol, who suffered a fatal heart attack while trying to run. More than 100 others were injured.

munich8. The worst incident in Olympic history occurred during the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, when 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were taken hostage by a terrorist group called Black September. All 11 Israelis were killed, in addition to a West German police officer and five of the eight terrorists.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]