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Olympic Art Competitions: The End

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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.

In 1949, the International Olympic Committee met in Rome to discuss a variety of topics, including the future of the Olympic art competition. The 1952 Summer Games were scheduled for Helsinki and, at the time, there was no reason to doubt the art competition tradition that had been revived in 1912 would continue.

Amateurs vs. Professionals

One of the issues addressed at the 1949 meeting was the participation of professional artists in Olympic art competitions.

Countries were required to certify that their Olympic athletes were amateurs; should artists at the Games be held to the same standards? Several prominent members of the IOC believed so, arguing that artists who profited from winning a medal—an award increased the value of the art to would-be buyers—didn’t fit with the Olympic ideal. A measure was approved that banned the awarding of medals in the art competition, thereby rendering it no more than a glorified art exhibition.

Avery Brundage

In his book, The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions, Richard Stanton suggests that the decision to eliminate the art competition came from the IOC’s Executive Committee, which counted among its ranks one particularly staunch supporter of the amateur ideal. American Avery Brundage, the committee’s vice president, won an honorable mention in the Literature category at the 1932 Games for his piece titled, “The Significance of Amateur Sport.” It was evident that Brundage thought there was some significance of amateur art, too.

Compromises Proposed

IOC members who weren’t present at the 1949 meeting, as well as artists, expressed their displeasure with the decision to turn the art competition into an exhibition by writing to IOC Chancellor Otto Mayer. Many argued that the art exhibitions would be a failure without professionals, a point with which Mayer did not disagree. Swiss artist A.W. Diggelmann proposed enacting a rule that artists could not sell medal-winning works on the open market, and instead had to donate them to their country’s Olympic committee. While he stopped short of overturning the 1949 decision, IOC President J. Sigfrid Edstrom agreed to appoint a special committee to revisit the issue.

Out of Time

After much debate and several more meetings, a vote was taken on the matter at a meeting in Vienna in May 1951. While the IOC members present voted unanimously to reinstate the art competitions for the 1952 Games, Von Frenckell, an IOC representative from Finland who did not attend the meeting, would soon rain on the parade. With only one year before the start of the Helsinki Games, Frenckell said Finland wouldn’t have enough time to prepare for a competition. “Since we are optimists,” Frenckell wrote, “we hope that the ones that wanted to take part in the competition will send their works to the exhibition, for which we will gladly give ‘honorable mention’ diplomas.” For the first time since 1908, there was no art competition at the Olympic Games.

The Aftermath

Brundage succeeded Edstrom as IOC President in late 1952. At an IOC meeting in Athens in 1954, Brundage, who remained opposed to reviving the art competition, proposed that host cities plan exhibitions that showcased the finest art of their country. “If we should return to Vienna, for example, we would hear the best music in the world,” Brundage said. “If one day we go to Russia, we would see the best ballets in the world.” Brundage’s proposal was adopted and adding art competitions to the Olympic program has not been seriously considered since.

Cultural Olympiad

For the 1992 Games, Barcelona’s organizing committee spent $50 million on a Cultural Olympiad, a four-year celebration of art and culture that began after the closing ceremonies of the 1988 Seoul Games. While small art exhibitions and cultural events had remained a part of the Olympic festivities since 1952, Barcelona’s efforts would raise the bar. The 1996 Cultural Olympiad in Atlanta featured 190 ticketed events and 23 exhibitions. As the New York Times noted, “visitors will be able to buy a package that might include the javelin throw, women’s basketball, the Atlanta Symphony and the Dallas Black Dance Theater.” As for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, London’s organizing committee boasts that more than 16 million people across the UK have taken part in or attended performances.
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On Monday, we’ll profile a few of the more interesting participants and medal winners in the Olympic art competitions from 1912-1948.

See Also: Olympic Art Competitions: 1916-1924, 1928-1932, 1936-1948

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]