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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
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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