CLOSE
Original image

Memories of the Olympic Village

Original image

Every Olympic city provides separate housing for the world's media and an Olympic Village for the athletes, coaches and team officials.

By most accounts, Vancouver's Olympic housing is a jewel. At the very least, what it clearly is not is a converted mental hospital. So that's an upgrade.

Let me explain.

Sydney, Australia, 2000 Summer Olympics. A few weeks out, my boss informs me a mistake on the housing form means we will not have single rooms as we usually do at the Olympics. He knows three weeks is a long time to share a room with anyone, including Charlize Theron.


What can I say? It's not as if I'm relegated to a double and he has somehow found a single for himself.


The room-sharing turns out to be the good news. My boss tells me he snores. I sleep so lightly I can hear a fly landing on Kleenex. Never one to think the worst, I immediately imagine a jet engine at takeoff with me strapped to the wing for three weeks.

If anyone doubted that Aussies have a ripe sense of humor, here came the clincher. In Sydney, the boss says, the media will be housed in a former mental hospital.

At first glance, it seems to me that could come in handy. If I am driven crazy by long work days and too little sleep, at least it will be a short drive.

Upon inspection, the media "village" -- a quaint term for sure given the circumstances -- was a sterile, antiseptic campus. The buildings were crammed between the hemisphere's largest cemetery and a highway. Near one of the bars was a penned-in area.

What passed for ambiance was inside an electric fence. Kangaroos.

Historical Note

1932-games

The first Olympic Village was constructed for the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. It was male only and consisted of sleeping quarters, cafeteria, amphitheatre, post office, telegraph office. No women or kangaroos. Women were put up in a hotel. This might have been the last Olympic Village that did not produce legendary stories of hanky panky among athletes. More on that later.

As they should, the athletes usually get the better end of the housing deal at the Olympics. They've worked tremendously hard for it, some suffering great financial hardship for the dream of chasing an Olympic medal, sometimes in a sport that no one much pays attention to except for a few days every four years.

They deserve to spend their days and nights surrounded by amenities and other athletes in the prime of their physical lives while those of us in the media are relegated to looking at other sportswriters in various stages of wardrobe malfunctions and sleep deprivation.

I'll go out on the limb here and say the contrast was never quite so stark as it was in Sydney.

I remember being on a plane for 24 hours, stopping at the Media Village bar for a Fosters, then strapping on my Bose headphones and hoping the sound of lapping surf would somehow jam my roommate's signal. A few hours later, I awoke to the roar of nasal thunder, and that was pretty much the routine for the next 10 days.

Olympic Fever

Long days of work writing about Olympic endeavors (and sleepless nights) took a rising toll until I ended up fainting one night. Chills. Sweat. Shivering. The next morning I went to a makeshift infirmary in the Media Center.

For athletes in Sydney -- and every other Olympic city -- access to medical treatments, massages, whatever, from caring team doctors and athletic trainers in the Olympic Village go with the territory. Day or night.

Outside the Olympic Village, the options for medical treatment aren't quite as varied and, in Sydney, did not hold the promise of a sympathetic bedside manner.

I entered the infirmary with some trepidation. Aussies are a hardy bunch. Unless a shark has bitten off a body part, an Aussie is expected to walk off whatever's hurting.

In fact, the first day in Sydney the newspaper carried what I thought was a remarkable story of a 10 year old boy who fought off a shark attack. I mentioned it to an Aussie reporter.

"Pretty amazing," I said.

He shrugged. "Not really, mate. It was only a six-footer."

I had that in the back of my mind when I went to see the doctor. My hope was that I had contracted some kind of illness -- nothing fatal, just enough to warrant his recommendation that I get my own room. Instead, he felt my forehead, shook my hand and said, "Drink more water. Next."

Maybe that's why I've always thought of the Athlete's Village as Shangri-La.

Village People

My brief visits to the Village over the years never constituted an extensive tour. Security measures did not allow for it. But I did go to the one in Sydney to interview the swimmer Eric "The Eel" Moussambani from Equatorial Guinea. He swam the slowest 100 meters in Olympic history, taking on water from the start and finishing pretty much like the S.S. Minnow washed ashore on Gilligan's Island. [Watch Moussambani's Olympic moment.]

ericeel.jpg

The people who weren't clapping for him were dialing 9-1-1.

The next day, Moussambani met a few of us at the Athlete's Village and talked of how he'd been training for only eight months in a 20-meter hotel pool in his native country. He spoke of never having seen a 50-meter pool.

While we waited for him to arrive, I remember thinking that every athlete who walked by looked happy beyond description. And why not? Each Athlete's Village has international cuisine 24-7. And, of course, McDonald's. Free.

Video games. Discos. Concerts. Movies. Internet access.

Free. Free. Free. Free. Free.

Every delegation's arrival is greeted with fanfare and the playing of that country's national anthem.

It is a city within a city and there is no police force. Alcohol is not served, just occasionally smuggled or more often consumed in the downtown bars after an athlete finishes competing.

The Socially Vigorous Life

If that's not why it constitutes the time of an athlete's life, maybe it's condom giveaways at every Olympics. (Vancouver is no different. One hundred thousand condoms were made available to the 7,000 athletes, coaches and athletic trainers housed in the two Athlete's Villages. Vancouver even introduced the Hurry Hard condom (seriously), marketing a phrase curlers use in their sport to get teammates to sweep the ice more vigorously).

Sydney, by comparison, handed out 70,000 condoms in the Olympic Village in 2000 only to air-lift in 20,000 more a week later. With three days to go, they ran out of those, too.

Olympic organizing committees long ago decided that when thousands of attractive, physically fit people gather in the same place for a few weeks it's socially responsible to supply protection.

vigorousIn 2004, Carrie Sheinberg, an alpine skiing champ (pictured), told The Scotsman, Scotland's national newspaper, that while she wouldn't call what happens in the Athlete's Village an orgy she would term it "socially vigorous."


One Olympian recently called it "an adult Disney World."


Vancouver's waterside downtown Athlete's Village is all that, no doubt, with million dollar views of the city and the snowcapped mountains overlooking it. It will be sold off as condos after the Olympics.


Those who have seen the inside report there is a 45,000-square foot lounge, a post office, cafe. This one even has an art gallery.

And no shortage of perfect human forms walking around.

"It's really a question of which flavour do you like," American swimmer Nelson Diebel told The Scotsman. "The only thing you're deprived of is fat. If you're the rare athlete who likes sedentary bodies, you're out of luck."

Not really. That's what the Media Village is for.

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
iStock
Animals
arrow
Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image
iStock

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]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES