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Olympic Art Competitions: 1916-1924

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Getty Images

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be taking a look back at the fine art competitions that originated in ancient Greece and were revived as part of the modern Olympics from 1912 to 1948.

Antwerp Opening Ceremonies, 1920/

As he prepared for the 1916 Olympic Games, International Olympic Committee president Baron Pierre de Coubertin hoped to build off the relative success of the art competitions at the 1912 Stockholm Games. Then came World War I.

Even as the situation in Europe worsened, Coubertin remained optimistic that the Games, to be held in Berlin, would proceed as scheduled. The ancient Olympic Games coincided with the “Ekecheiria,” or laying down of arms, and Coubertin wanted to believe that the modern Olympics could have the same peace-making effect. To Coubertin’s dismay, the Triple Entente and Central Powers had no intention of pausing their war to stage an Olympics, even one that was to include art competitions.

On to Antwerp

Antwerp was selected to host the 1920 Games. With the war ending less than two years before the opening ceremonies, the Olympics would once again be planned on a tight schedule. In the invitation he drafted for the Games, Belgian IOC member Henry Baillet Latour called specific attention to the art competitions, perhaps as a favor to Coubertin. “We hope that you will well want to insist to the Olympic Committee of your country that a large advertisement is published regarding the regulations of the various contests in order to obtain, on behalf of your artists, a participation that is brilliant and numerous.”

Let the Games Begin

Coubertin’s five Olympic rings made their debut at the Games on a flag in Antwerp’s unfinished stadium in 1920. Considering that Belgium was in ruins—according to Richard Stanton’s The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions, the official program for the Games listed battlefields to visit—the Belgian Olympic Committee did a fine job. In addition to the art competitions, which once again featured five categories, visitors to the Games were treated to a pair of Belgian art exhibitions at the Royal Museum of Antwerp.

Missing History and Medalists

Not much is known about the art competition at the 1920 Games, as the official report was incomplete and published several years after the closing ceremonies. According to Stanton, artists from 18 countries submitted works. The judges were stingy, just as they were in Stockholm, and none of the entries in the Painting and Architecture categories were deemed gold medal-worthy. Of the 11 medals awarded for the art competition, six went to Belgians.

The End of an Era and Plans for Paris

In 1922, Coubertin announced his plan to retire after the 1924 Games, which were to be held in Paris. Members of the French Olympic Committee were determined to honor their countryman’s contributions to the Olympic movement. A five-man committee was formed to focus specifically on the art competitions at the 1924 Games. Committee members solicited advice on ways to improve the competition from arts organizations throughout France, and promoted the events to foreign ambassadors working in Paris.

New Regulations

The guidelines for each of the five events were revised for the 1924 Games based on feedback the committee received. While the new guidelines were more thorough than they were in Antwerp and Stockholm, they weren’t especially restrictive. Some additions were made to protect the IOC, such as this one: “Whatever is the cause or the extent of damage, the Commission of Arts and Foreign Relations of the Olympic Games will not, in any case, be responsible for fires, fights, losses or other accidents to which the exhibited works may be exposed.” Other new regulations made judging the competitions more manageable. For instance, entries in the literature competitions could not exceed 1,000 verses or 20,000 words for prose, while musical performances were limited to one hour.

Impressive Participation and Final Remarks

For the first time in modern Olympic history, the art competition attracted international attention. Artists from 23 countries submitted 283 works, of which 189 were accepted and displayed in four rooms of the Grand Palace. Among the medal winners was the brother of Irish poet W.B. Yeats. Jack B. Yeats won the silver medal in the Painting and Graphic Arts competition for his “Natation.”

In his final Olympic address as IOC president, Coubertin reiterated his belief that art and athletics be united. “There is need for something else besides athleticism and sport, we want the presence of national genius, the collaboration of the Muses, the cult of beauty, all the display pertaining to the strong symbolism incarnate in the past by the Olympic Games and which must continue to be represented in our modern times.”

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]