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Getty Images/IOC (1896)

From 1912 to 1948, Art Competitions Were Part of the Olympics

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Getty Images/IOC (1896)

French aristocrat and educationalist Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin (seated, at left) was the man primarily responsible for reviving the ancient Olympic Games. As the founder of the International Olympic Committee, Coubertin spearheaded the planning efforts for the 1896 Athens Games and guided the Olympic movement until he retired as IOC president in 1925.

Coubertin’s vision for the modern Olympics was only partly realized with the Athens Games. In the ensuing years, he devoted himself to reestablishing art competitions—a staple of the Games in ancient Greece—as part of the quadrennial Olympiad. Coubertin felt strongly that art was as much a part of the Olympic ideal as athletics. As documented in Richard Stanton’s thoroughly researched book on the subject, The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions, Coubertin once wrote: “Deprived of the aura of the art contests, Olympic games are only world championships.”

Patience is a Virtue

The second and third modern Olympiads were held in Paris and St. Louis, respectively, and neither one featured art competitions. Coubertin wanted the Olympic movement to develop some momentum before he altered the format of the Games. In an effort to appease Greek officials who argued unsuccessfully that Athens should serve as the permanent site of the modern Olympiad, Coubertin and the IOC agreed to let Athens host an interim Games in 1906. Coubertin didn’t attend and instead used the time to organize a conference to advance his idea.

The Paris Conference

Coubertin outlined his plan for the reestablishment of art competitions before an audience of about 60 artists and dignitaries, many of whom had been invited to Paris based on recommendations from his fellow IOC members. “We are to reunite in the bonds of legitimate wedlock a long-divorced couple – Muscle and Mind,” said Coubertin, who proposed five competitions in architecture, sculpture, painting, music and literature. All of the art submitted in this “Pentathlon of the Muses” was to be inspired by sport. Coubertin’s proposal to add art competitions to the program at the 1908 Games was unanimously approved.

Disappointment in London and Swedish Dissent

Rome was awarded the 1908 Games, but Italy’s economic instability, exacerbated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1906, led the IOC to relocate the Games to London 18 months before the opening ceremonies were scheduled to begin. Officials from London’s Royal Academy of the Arts had the unenviable task of organizing the art competitions on an accelerated schedule. Despite their best efforts, which included establishing the first rules for the events, the art competitions were not staged in 1908.

The IOC met in Luxembourg in June of 1910 to discuss plans for inaugurating the art competitions at the 1912 Games, which were to be held in Stockholm. Citing concerns over judging the competitions, Colonel Victor Balck of Sweden announced the Swedish Organizing Committee’s desire to renounce the competitions entirely. Coubertin fired back that the inclusion of art competitions at the Stockholm Games was not up for debate. The art competitions would be added in 1912, whether Sweden’s organizers liked the idea or not.

Final Preparations and Rules

Opening Ceremonies, 1912/Getty Images

Sweden remained uncooperative in the months leading up to the opening ceremonies, so Coubertin took it upon himself to promote the art competitions and invite artists to participate in the Games. The rules for the five events, which were far less restrictive than the original guidelines drafted for the 1908 Games, were published in September 1911. Among them: All works presented were required to be original and directly inspired by the idea of sport. Size didn’t matter, except for sculptors, who were required to submit “small models not larger than eighty centimeters in height, width, and length.” While there were no language restrictions, the jury—a multinational collection of individuals assembled by Coubertin—asked that all manuscripts submitted in a language other than German, English, Spanish, French or Italian be accompanied by a translation to French, English, or German.

Surprise Winner

Coubertin himself submitted an ode in the Literature competition under a pseudonym and won the gold medal, though it’s unclear how his triumph went undetected until years later. Some have suggested that Coubertin awarded the medal to himself, but Stanton found no evidence in his research to support that idea. The judges’ glowing review of Coubertin’s “Ode to Sport” read, in part: “It emanates as directly as is possible from the idea of sport. It praises sport in a form that to the ear is very literary and very sporting.”

Limited Participation

A mere 33 artists signed the on-site register in Stockholm, but Stanton notes that there were entrants who did not attend the Games. Still, participation in the first modern art competitions was minimal. In fact, the only event in which the judges awarded a medal other than gold was Sculpture. In every other event, the judges decided that the non-winning entries were not deserving of a medal. Alphonse Laverriere and Eugene Monod of Switzerland took top honors in the Architecture event for their design of a modern Olympic stadium. The gold medal in music was awarded to Italy’s Ricardo Barthelemy for his “Triumphal Olympic March.”

In his review of the Games, Coubertin expressed his disappointment that Sweden’s organizers had failed to incorporate Barthelemy’s winning entry in the official ceremonies, but Coubertin was mostly pleased. Muscle and mind were united again.

See Also:

11 Notable Medalists in the Olympic Art Competitions

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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