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Olympic Art Competitions: 1936-1948

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Getty Images

We're 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.

Berlin, 1936/

When Adolf Hitler assumed power in January 1933, the future of the 1936 Berlin Games was suddenly in doubt. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister for Public Education and Propaganda, convinced the chancellor that the Games were an opportunity to shape Nazi Germany’s image and showcase the country’s athletic prowess and shape. The 1936 Games would go on as planned.

German Art Committee

One of the changes the German Art Committee proposed for the 1936 Olympic art competition was the addition of a Works of the Screen category. Berlin Organizing Committee president Theodor Lewald proposed the idea in a letter to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who had continued to serve as an honorary head of the IOC following his retirement as president in 1924. Coubertin respectfully denied the proposal, which would have welcomed “purely documentary films and films of general propaganda” and excluded theatrical submissions. The IOC also denied requests to add dance and creative gold and silver smithing to the program.

International Dance Festival

Germany moved ahead with plans to host a dance competition concurrent with the Games.

Legendary American modern dancer Martha Graham was invited, but she declined. “So many artists whom I respect and admire have been persecuted, have been deprived of their right to work, and for such unsatisfactory and ridiculous reasons, that I should consider it impossible to identify myself, by accepting the invitation, with the regime that has made such things possible,” Graham wrote. The proposed competition became an international dance festival, with every participant awarded a diploma.

Participation and a Concert

Spain and the Soviet Union boycotted the Games and low participation numbers in the art competition from other countries prompted Germany to extend the deadlines for submitting works. The 1936 art competition featured roughly half the total number of entries that had been submitted in previous years, but managed to attract 70,000 visitors. According to Richard Stanton, author of The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions, Germany considered building a full-scale model of the Temple of Zeus to serve as the entrance to the art exhibition, but the plan was scrapped due to budget concerns. In a move that must have delighted Coubertin, Germany arranged for several of the medal-winning music compositions to be performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert at the end of the Games.

World War II Cancels Games

The 1940 Games were scheduled for Tokyo, moved to Helsinki in 1938 and then canceled entirely when the Soviet Union invaded Finland in late 1939. World War II also led to the cancellation of the 1944 Games, which were to be held in London.

Back on Track

London, 1948/Getty Images

The British didn’t have to wait long for another chance to host the Olympics. The 1948 Games were held in London, and while there was some debate as to whether Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union and Japan should be invited to the party, there was near unanimous agreement that the Games would feature an art competition. (Germany and Japan were barred from participating, while the Soviets declined the invitation.)

Mixed Interest

Some countries took great interest in the 1948 art competition. Canada and Italy, for instance, staged national art competitions the year before the Games to determine the pieces that would be submitted to London. The United States, in contrast, chose not to participate. According to the IOC’s official report, the decision was based on “a lack of interest by the American artists in the art section at the Berlin Games in 1936.”


After the 1948 art competition, which was held in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Fine Arts Committee put together a report with recommendations for future organizers. The committee’s proposals ranged from the specific (oil paintings should be judged separately from watercolors and drawings) to the general (strengthen the connection between the artistic and the athletic components of the Games). The official review of the Games, which Stanton documents in his book, declared, “sporting art no longer plays the part of a Cinderella.”

See Also: Olympic Art Competitions: 1916-1924, 1928-1932

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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]