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Olympic Art Competitions: 1928-1932

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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.

Amsterdam Opening Ceremonies, 1928/

The 1928 Games in Amsterdam would be the first of the modern Olympiad without Baron Pierre de Coubertin running the show. Would the art competition survive without its primary proponent?

Carrying the Torch

The Amsterdam Organizing Committee took special care to carry on the tradition established by Coubertin, who retired as IOC president after the 1924 Games. J.W. Teillers of the Hague was tapped as Secretary of the Art Committee and was asked to take the lead in planning the art competition. Teillers was instrumental in convincing other countries to establish their own art committees to further promote participation in the contest.


Teillers orchestrated an important change to the structure of the art competition by breaking each of the five categories—Painting, Literature, Sculpture, Music and Architecture—into subdivisions. Beginning in 1928, the Literature competition, for instance, would accept submissions and award medals for three distinct types of works: lyrics and contemplative, dramatic, and epic. Similar divisions were added for the other four categories and Teillers drafted new regulations to reflect these changes.

U.S. Participation

According to the New York Times, the United States shipped more than 100 pieces of art to the 1928 Games under the honorary chairmanship of First Lady Grace Coolidge. “A special effort has been made to bring forward the American point of view and its development in sport,” said American Federation of the Arts member Charles H. Sherrill, who also served as a judge for the Architecture competition. “Particularly is this true in the architecture exhibit, in which will appear architectural plans and water color drawings of certain buildings for indoor sports, necessitated by our winters and unknown in Europe.” (The Americans failed to medal in the art competition at the 1928 Games.)

A Success

The roughly 1,100 pieces of art submitted were displayed by country in the Amsterdam Municipal Museum. While the judges were generally unimpressed with the quality of the entries in the dramatic literature and music categories, the art competition in Amsterdam was deemed superior to the one held in Paris four years earlier. In its official review, the IOC wrote, in part, “a more successful result than that attained could hardly be expected.”

Art Competitions in Hollywood

Los Angeles Olympic Village, 1932/Getty Images

The U.S. Olympic Committee began planning the art competition for the 1932 Los Angeles Games almost three years before the start of the opening ceremonies. According to Richard Stanton’s The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions, the art competition was the first event provided for in the USOC’s budget.

U.S. Customs Arrangement

According to Stanton, the IOC made an arrangement with the U.S. Customs Bureau to allow artwork shipped via the Panama Canal to enter free of duty or in bond. To further encourage participation, the U.S. Olympic Committee also offered to pay for transportation and insurance on the return trip. The art competition and a concurrent art exhibition were hosted in the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art. About 30 countries were represented, though more than half of the 1,145 pieces submitted were from the United States.

Large and Dull

Not everyone was enamored with the art competition. In a scathing review for the New York Times, reporter Arthur Miller referred to them “as a sort of side show for the Olympic Games.” (With over 384,000 visitors during the course of the 1932 Games, it was a well-attended side show.) “The show, on the whole, is inept, and is saved from complete mediocrity by the two rowing pictures and one boxing scene by Thomas Eakins, the boxing sculpture by Mahonri Young, and the young athletes modeled by R. Tait Mackenzie,” Miller wrote. “…Either the good painters do not paint sports or the Olympic committees do not know art.” Young would win gold in the statue division and Mackenzie would win bronze in the reliefs and medallions division of the Sculpture category.

See Also: Olympic Art Competitions: 1916-1924

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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