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Wacky Tales from Olympics Past

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We're big Olympics fans here at mental_floss, and it's killing us that we've got to wait nearly two more years until the London Olympics begin. In the meantime, let's scratch our Olympic itch by looking at some stories you might not know from earlier Games.

Marathon Madness

Before the 1896 Olympic revival in Athens, there was no such thing as a marathon. Organizers wanted to add a long distance run to the Games and pay tribute to their Greek hosts, though, so they decided to create a grueling run that would pay tribute to the legendary Pheidippides' trot from Marathon in 490 B.C. At the time, running the 40,000 meter course sounded absurd, but 17 runners decided to give it a try. In the end, Greek hero Spiridon Louis won the gold with a finish in 2:58, a darn good time for a marathon even by today's standards.

Subsequent marathons didn't go off quite as smoothly. Some bizarre highlights from early adventures in distance running:

1904, St. Louis

Cuban postal worker Felix Carvajal (at left) saved up enough money to make it to the Games, but once he got to New Orleans on his journey, he found himself enjoying a craps game a bit too much. Carvajal managed to hitchhike to St. Louis after blowing all of his cash on a run of cold dice, but he had lost all of his equipment. He showed up for the race wearing dress shoes and long pants. Organizers briefly delayed the start while an American competitor cut the legs off of Carvajal's pants at the knees so he could run. The five-foot-tall Cuban then took off in his street shoes and finished fourth overall.


Carvajal wasn't even the oddest story of that marathon, though. New Yorker Fred Lorz zipped across the finish line at 3:13 to a hero's welcome and even got to meet Teddy Roosevelt's daughter. He then admitted that he had run nine miles before hitching a ride in a car for the next 11 miles and then resuming his run. Of course Lorz received a quick disqualification, but the weird thing is that Lorz probably could have won the race without cheating: The very next year he legitimately won the Boston marathon with a scorching time of 2:38:25.

Then there's the real winner of the 1904 Olympic gold for the marathon, English-born American Thomas Hicks(at left wearing the sash). In the days before Gatorade, Hicks' energy flagged repeatedly throughout the race, and he nearly collapsed several times. His coaches revived him with a decidedly unusual sports drink: a mixture of strychnine and brandy.

1906, Athens

Canadian hopeful William Sherring wanted to make it to Athens from his Ontario home, but he had a bit of a cash flow problem. Even with the help of his local running club, he could only scratch together $75 for the trip. Obviously, even in 1906, $75 wouldn't get him to Athens. Sherring didn't give up, though. In a turn straight out of a sitcom, he gave a bartender buddy his small cash reserve with instructions to be it on a horse. The bartender laid the cash on a horse named Cicely, who won at 6:1 odds. Sherring made it to Athens and won the gold with a 2:51. His Greek hosts gave him a statue of Athena and a live lamb as prizes.

Tardiest Team

Organizers were expecting a Russian entry in the military team rifle event at the 1908 Olympics, but when the competition began, the Russians still hadn't shown up in London. The team eventually rolled into town several days later and discovered their error. It turned out that while Russia was still using the old Julian calendar, the rest of the world had made the switch to the Gregorian calendar. The two versions were 12 days off, so the Russians' medal hopes died due to lack of a good day planner.

Thriftiest Telegram

Canadian George Goulding may have won the gold in the 10,000-meter walk in the 1912 Stockholm Games, but he wasn't about to waste any money on extra words when he wired the news home. The telegram he sent his wife succinctly read, "Won – George."

Muddy Baskets

Basketball made its Olympic debut in 1936 in Berlin, but the Third Reich didn't exactly do a bang-up job of finding venues. Apparently there weren't any indoor basketball courts in Berlin, so the games were played outdoors on clay-and-sand lawn tennis courts. Dribbling a basketball on clay and sand is never easy, but it became even tougher when the gold medal game between Canada and the United States coincided with a thunderstorm. As the court turned into mud, scoring plummeted. The final wasn't quite what you'd call a barnburner; in the end, Team USA took the first gold medal with a 19-8 victory.

The Original Bad Boys

The Uruguayan hoops team at the 1952 Helsinki Games may only have won the bronze medal, but they took home the gold for bad behavior. The team became so foul-happy against France in the medal round that by the end of the game they only had three players left on the court. When France scored a game-winning layup, the Uruguayans graciously accepted the defeat...by attacking the American referee and kicking him in the groin. The following day, the team sent three Soviet players to the first-aid station in the first half of their game, and in the bronze medal game against Argentina they sparked a 25-person melee.

Tipsiest Marksman

In 1968 the Swedish team appeared to have won the bronze in modern pentathlon until Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall failed a drug test...for alcohol. It was common for modern pentathletes to have a tippled to calm their nerves before the shooting competition, but Liljenwall hit the bottle a bit too hard. He became the first person to ever receive a drug disqualification from the Olympics after his blood alcohol content came in above the legal limit. Liljenwall fell back on the classic drunk's excuse: he'd only had two beers.

Least PETA-Friendly Event

The 1900 Olympics in Paris featured lots of shooting events, including one that hasn't appeared in any Games since: live pigeon shooting. Belgian hunter Leon de Lunden won the event after bagging 21 pigeons.

Jumpiest Horses

Pigeon shooting wasn't the only strange event at the 1900 Olympics. The equestrian competition also included both high jump and long jump events. Frenchman Dominique Maximien Garderes atop Canela tied with Italian Gian Giorgio Trissino atop Oreste for the high jump gold; they both hopped up 1.85 meters. Neither event has appeared in the Olympics since.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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