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Ten 2012 Olympians to Keep Your Eyes On

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Thousands of athletes from all over the world are in London for the 2012 Olympics. Many of them are already stars, having trained their entire lives for this chance at gold. For some, getting there has been a struggle against poverty, politics, prejudice, and other disadvantages. Here are a few that you'll want to know before you see them compete.

1. South Sudan: Guor Marial

DARRYL WEBB/Reuters /Landov

Twenty-eight-year-old Guor Marial was born in what is now South Sudan, the world's youngest nation. He became a refugee of the Sudanese conflict in 1993 when he was only nine years old, as he fled across border after border seeking asylum from the violence. Marial was granted asylum in the U.S. in 2001, and is a permanent resident here. An All-American cross-country runner and an accomplished marathoner, Marial rejected an offer from the Sudan Olympic Committee to run under its flag at the London Olympics.

"Never," he said of his refusal to run for Sudan. "For me to even consider that is a betrayal. My family lost 28 members in the war with Sudan. Millions of my people were killed by Sudan forces. I can only forgive, but I cannot honor and glorify a country that killed my people."

However, South Sudan, the nation that Marial considers his own, does not yet have an official Olympic Committee. The International Olympic Committee has granted Marial the right to participate as an Independent Olympic Athlete, a category reserved for those in such situations.

2. Peru: Gladys Tejeda

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Four years ago, Gladys Tejeda had never heard of the Olympics. In London, she will be running the marathon for Peru. Tejeda comes from a poor farming family, in which the many children began working at around eight years old. The 26-year-old has been an outstanding runner since she was a child, though, and once the idea of an Olympic run was raised by her brother while the family watched the Beijing games on their very first TV set, Tejeda was there. Living at 13,000 feet above sea level helped her become a marathoner, as her endurance level is extremely high. Tejeda qualified for the Olympics on her very first marathon, and the London competition will be only her third.

3. Malaysia: Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi

Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi will compete in the London Olympics as the first female shooting sports competitor from Malaysia. She is also eight months pregnant. Therefore, she joins a small and exclusive club of athletes who go for the gold while expecting. However, other competitors were in the early stages of pregnancy. Taibi is a bit concerned that the baby may kick at the exact moment she must aim with world-class accuracy. Malaysian officials were more worried about her ability to travel to London, but with her doctor’s blessing, she was cleared for the long flight.

4. South Africa: Oscar Pistorius

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South African double amputee Oscar Pistorius will compete in the individual 400 meters and the 4×400-meter relay at the London Olympics. He runs on specially-designed carbon-fiber prosthetics called Cheetahs, which sparked an ongoing controversy about the place of prosthetic enhancements in competitive sports. In 2008, Pistorius won a court battle to compete for an Olympic spot. However, he then failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. This year, Pistorius will be the first amputee to compete in track at the Olympics.

5. South Africa: Caster Semenya

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Caster Semenya is a 21-year-old track and field star from South Africa. In 2009, Semenya became known around the world, not for winning the world championship in the 800 meter event, but for suspicions that she is not fully female. The International Association of Athletics Federations ordered gender-verification testing, which humiliated the then 18-year-old, who had never questioned her own sex. She was banned from racing for 11 months, during which she underwent a barrage of tests. Semenya was finally cleared to compete as female, and will not only run, but will carry the flag for the South African team.

6. Iran: Behdad Salimi


Weightlifter Behdad Salimi is the world's strongest man, designated so after he lifted 472 pounds at the world weight-lifting championships in Paris in 2011. Salimi began his athletic career as a gymnast, but found his niche when a friend suggested he try weightlifting instead. Of the 54 Olympic athletes from Iran, Salimi is the country's best hope for a gold medal.

7. Japan: Hiroshi Hoketsu

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Hiroshi Hoketsu is representing Japan in Olympic dressage competition for the third time: he competed in Beijing in 2008 and in Tokyo in 1964. Yes, 1964. Hoketsu was born in 1941 and is 71 years old. He has spent the past five years grooming his horse Whisper for the event. Whisper is only 15. Surprisingly, Hoketsu is not the oldest Olympian ever. In 1920, Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn won his sixth medal at age 72.

8. Saudi Arabia: Sarah Attar

Saudi Arabia has never sent women to the Olympics before, but pressure from the IOC led them to place two women on the 2012 team. One is Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, who will compete in judo despite never competing in a national event (Saudi Arabia has none for women). The other female competitor is track runner Sarah Attar, who grew up in the United States and is a current student at Pepperdine University. Attar holds dual U.S./Saudi citizenship, and will run the 800 meter event. When Attar was invited to represent Saudi Arabia, her parents requested all photos of her be removed from Pepperdine's website, and she changed her usual American dress to long sleeves and head coverings. She says she hopes her participation in the Olympics will open doors for women athletes in that country.

9. Afghanistan: Tahmina Kohistani

Sprinter Tahmina Kohistani is one of only two track runners who will compete for Afghanistan in the London Olympics -and the only female. She faces some long odds because of the lack of support from her country -- which loves sports but only in those events they expect to win -- and because of the air pollution in Kabul. However, Kohistani has the freedom to run, which would not have been tolerated under the Taliban, and the support of her family, which many Afghan female athletes do not have. Like other Muslim athletes, she runs fully covered, including practicing in a baseball cap in place of a hijab -although she will wear a headscarf at the games. Kohistani is a national champion in her events, the 100 and 200 meters, but her times would place her in high school competition in most countries. Kohistani is proud just to participate in the Olympics. See her in a video interview.

10. United States: Kayla Harrison

Judoka Kayla Harrison started her Olympic journey farther behind than most U.S. athletes. As a teenager, she was sexually abused by her judo coach for three years. Harrison finally stood up and testified against her attacker in court, and he was convicted. But the small-town publicity of the trial forced her to move to Boston and start over. Harrison's new trainer got her into therapy so she could put the past behind her and look forward to victory. Five years later, she has graduated from high school, earned her EMT certification, is engaged to a firefighter, won a world championship, and is favored to win a gold medal in London.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”