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5 Memorable Moments from Past Opening Ceremonies

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As the Olympic Games get set to kick off in London with the opening ceremony on Friday, we know that the next couple of weeks will feature some fantastic athletic stories to inspire us, amaze us, and occasionally make us laugh. However, don't discount the opening ceremony itself as a chance for some memorable Olympic moments. Past ceremonies have been known to include their own little quirks, disasters, and political flaps. Here are a few of the best.

1. The Olympic Torch Becomes a Korean BBQ

The 1988 Seoul Olympics opening ceremonies started out smoothly, with South Korea's President Roh Tae Woo officially opening the Games, the raising of the Olympic flag, and the playing of the Olympic hymn. The customary release of doves went off without a hitch, and the crowd's excitement grew as former Korean Olympians ran into the stadium to finish the torch relay.

Things got less picturesque, though, when the final members of the relay team ascended the hundred-foot torch cauldron by riding an elevating platform. When they reached the top, it became clear that several of the doves had acted like doves when they'd been released: they flew around for a bit before finding a nice high place to perch. Instead of being frightened by the cauldron lighting team, the birds seemed to just eye them curiously. Bad move. When the relay torches hit the cauldron, it went up in flames, taking a fair number of doves with it. Organizers discontinued the dove release following this incident. You can see the cringe-inducing debacle take place below (jump to about the 2:45 mark).

2. Romance Smolders over the Olympic Cauldron

Unlucky birds aren't the only things that can get hot over the cauldron; the passions of two teenagers have heated up there as well. When Montreal hosted the 1976 Games, organizers wanted to find a symbolic way to represent both Quebec and the rest of Canada working together in harmony. What better way to celebrate multiculturalism than with the country's children? Stephane Prefontaine, a 16-year-old French-Candian track prodigy, and Toronto's Sandra Henderson, a 15-year-old runner, received the nod to light the cauldron. This ended up being more than a cute photo op, though. The two fell in love and ended up getting married years later.

The Montreal cauldron's adventures weren't all happy, though. Just days after the flame successfully acted as a matchmaker, a torrential rainstorm extinguished it. A quick-thinking bystander relit the torch with his cigarette lighter, which seemed like a reasonable way to avert disaster. By Olympic standards, though, this bit of pragmatism was tantamount to desecration. Organizers had to extinguish the cauldron before relighting it with a "real" sacred Olympic flame that they had been keeping in reserve for just such an occasion.

3. Paralympic Archer Gets One Shot at the Cauldron

While you probably remember the 1992 Barcelona Games for the American basketball Dream Team's dominance or South Africa's return to competition following a 28-year ban, the Olympics also featured one of the coolest cauldron-lightings. Rather than having someone simply walk up to the cauldron and light it with a relay torch, organizers decided to go for the dramatic. When the torch arrived in the middle of the stadium, paralympic archer Antonio Rebello used the flame to ignite an arrow, which he then fired over the crowd towards the cauldron perched on the outer rim of the stadium. The cauldron was gradually releasing fuel into the air, so when the flaming arrow passed over it, the whole thing ignited in one of the better spectacles in Olympic history. See for yourself (jump to about the 4:35 mark):

4. Hitler Leaves His Mark on the Games

Picture 133.pngThe 1936 Games in Berlin will forever be remembered as the "Hitler Olympics" in which Jesse Owens used his track triumphs to underscore the flimsiness of Nazi ideology. However, many of the traditions now associated with the Games didn't gain steam until Hitler's brain trust employed them to add some extra pageantry. The relay of the Olympic flame from Olympia to the site of the Games, for instance, was the idea of Carl Diem, one of Hitler's planners. According to Hitler's logic, the relay reinforced the kinship of his Aryan nation to its ancient Greek forerunners. The rings of the Olympic flag also didn't gain much traction until Diem prominently displayed them at the lighting of the torch at Delphi. After seeing the rings carved into stone, people fell under the misconception that the symbol traced its roots to the ancient Games, when in actuality Pierre de Coubertin only designed the rings two decades earlier.

For his part, Hitler was uncharacteristically taciturn at the ceremonies; the only words he uttered were, "I proclaim open the Olympic Games of Berlin, celebrating the XIth Olympiad of the modern era." Perhaps he didn't want to get upstaged by the spectacle, which included the doomed Hindenburg airship floating over the stadium with the Olympic rings in tow and a goose-stepping delegation of Bulgarian athletes.

5. Protests Plague the Soviet Games

Picture 93.pngIn America, the 1980 Games in Moscow were pretty noteworthy because the Western powers boycotted the festivities. The protest was due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and it was a favor the Eastern Bloc countries would return when Los Angeles hosted the Games in 1984. However, other countries chose to show up and compete while still subtly protesting the Afghanistan conflict. Some countries competed without taking part in the Opening Parade, while 16 countries paraded under the Olympic flag instead of their respective countries'. (Their logic was that the Olympic flag was a symbol of peace.) When these delegations won medals later in the Games, organizers played the Olympic hymn rather than their respective national anthems.

If these protests were meant to make an impression on Moscow's youth, though, they probably fell short of their goal. All children between ages 7 and 15 spent the day "on holiday" in the countryside to keep them away from the potential Western influences of the throngs of spectators flooding in for the Games. Sadly, the children missed one of the strangest quirks in the history of any ceremony: two cosmonauts appeared on a giant video screen to greet the athletes from outer space.

This article originally appeared during the Beijing Games in 2008.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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