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4 Olympians Who Sold Their Gold Medals

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You wouldn’t know it with all of the hype surrounding the Olympics right now, but there are things more important than winning a gold medal. Just ask these athletes, who had good reason to sell their hard-earned precious metal.

1. Mark Wells, U.S.
1980 Hockey

You might wonder how an Olympic athlete could part with any gold medal, let alone one attached to such a historic and emotional victory. Wells didn’t part with it lightly: he sold it to help pay for medical treatments related to a rare genetic disease that damaged his spinal cord. He sold the medal to a private collector, who in turn sold it through an auction house for $310,700 in 2010. This is the heartbreaking note that accompanied the medal:

"The gold medal symbolizes my personal accomplishments and our team's accomplishments being reached. As one of only 20 players to receive this gold medal, it has held a special place in my heart since February of 1980. When I decided recently to offer it out . . . I also decided until the day I give it up, it will be worn. Therefore, I have slept with this medal for the past two weeks now in my home . . . I hope you will cherish this medal as I have."

2. Wladimir Klitschko, Ukraine
1996 Boxing

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The Atlanta Games marked the first year Ukraine went to the Olympics as an independent country, so the gold medal that the Steel Hammer picked up was pretty special. To Klitschko, though, helping Ukrainian children get involved in sports is even more important. He auctioned off his prize earlier this year, earning $1 million for the Klitschko Brothers Foundation that helps fund children's sports camps and facilities. The bidder? A mysterious benefactor who immediately returned the medal to the man who earned it.

3. Anthony Ervin, U.S.
2000 Swimming

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Anthony Ervin won the gold in the 50m freestyle at the 2000 Sydney Games. Despite this success, he retired from the sport in 2003 at the age of 22, saying that he "needed to kind of figure out my own life … unhindered, unfettered from the discipline of being a competitive, professional swimmer.” He put his gold medal on eBay in 2004, donating the $17,101 it earned to victims of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Ervin made an appearance in the 50m in 2012, but failed to medal.

4. Otylia Jedrzejczak, Poland
2004 Swimming

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Before she even qualified for the Athens Olympics 10 years ago, Jedrzejczak declared that any gold medals she won would be donated to charity. When she found herself at the top of the winner's stand not long after, she made good on the promise. Her medal from the 200m butterfly went for more than $80,000 and benefited a Polish charity that helps kids with leukemia. "I don't need the medal to remember," she said. "I know I'm the Olympic champion. That's in my heart."

And One Who Tried To: Tommie Smith, U.S.
1968 Track & Field

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Even if you don't know the name Tommie Smith, you've seen him: he was one of two American men who silently raised a gloved fist in the Black Power salute at the 200m dash victory ceremony. Despite the medal's significance, he put it on the auction block. Twice.

In 2000, Smith and his wife, Delois Jordan-Smith, started TommieSmith.com, the Web site featuring an auction of the athlete's memorabilia. The asking price at the time was $500,000, although Smith admitted the odds of someone ponying up the cash were probably ''smaller than a mustard seed.''

He was right to be skeptical. Ten years later, Smith re-launched the auction, this time starting the bidding at $250,000. Many speculated that Smith needed the money to live, but David Steele, the co-writer of Smith’s 2007 autobiography, didn’t think so. “I worry with this news getting out now that everyone is going to get that impression. Unless something has changed in the last year, I don’t think it’s the case.”

“I know he wants to fund a youth initiative and a good portion of the money off the sale would go toward that,” said Gary J. Zimet, a representative from Moments in Time auction house. Smith himself has remained silent on the topic.

The auction soon fell out of the news cycle and there are no reports of anyone offering even that discounted price. That said, the medal has disappeared off TommieSmith.com but if you’re in the market for an Olympic medal of your own (and have a spare quarter of a mil), drop him a line, you might still be in luck.

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technology
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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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