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18 Athletes Going to Sochi Alone

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Quite a few nations rarely participate in the Winter Games because the lack of snow or ice makes those particular sports difficult and unpopular in warm weather countries. But athletes with dual (or even triple) citizenship and the means to travel for training sometimes end up representing a tropical country on the ski slopes or the ice.

None of these athletes will actually be traveling all alone to the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, as far as we know. When you see them in the parade, they will most likely be accompanied by coaches and officials from their nation. However, they are each the sole athlete participating in competition for their country.

1. Cayman Islands: Dow Travers

Dow Travers was the first ever winter Olympian from the Cayman Islands in 2010. That makes him a national hero in the tiny nation where the highest altitude is 141 feet above sea level! Travers learned to ski during family vacations in Beaver Creek, Colorado. In Sochi, he will compete in the men’s slalom and the men’s giant slalom under the flag of the Cayman Islands

2. Malta: Elise Pellegrin

Photograph from Facebook.

Elise Pellegrin is a French-born 21-year-old professional Alpine skier. She has been skiing since she was three years old! Pellegrin will be the first Olympic athlete ever to represent the Mediterranean island of Malta at the Winter Games, having achieved her citizenship there only recently. She will compete in the women’s slalom and the women’s giant slalom.

3. Philippines: Michael Christian Martinez

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Michael Christian Martinez is only 17 years old, yet he will have the entire nation of the Philippines behind him as he represents them in Sochi all by himself. No one else from the Philippines has qualified for the Winter Games since 1992. Martinez has been skating since he was eight and has been racking up international awards in men’s figure skating since he was twelve. Martinez trains in Manila and in California. He is the first ever figure skater to represent the Philippines in the Olympics.

4. Bermuda: Tucker Murphy

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Cross-country skier Tucker Murphy represented Bermuda as that nation’s first Olympic skier in 2010, and will repeat as a solo Bermudan skiing cross country in Sochi. Murphy graduated from Dartmouth, where he was on the rowing team as well as the ski team, and went on to be a Rhodes scholar studying zoology. As in 2010, he will no doubt wear Bermuda shorts as the sole representative of the island nation

5. British Virgin Islands: Peter Crook

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The British Virgin Islands have not competed in the Winter Games since 1984 (and never before that). This year, Peter Crook will ski for the Islands in the men’s halfpipe, a freestyle skiing event. Crook was born in Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, but moved to Wisconsin when he was a child. He now lives in Colorado. Crook and his father founded the BVI Skiing Association three years ago, in anticipation of the 2014 Winter Games. He said their biggest challenge was explaining what half pipe skiing was to the BVI Olympic Committee.

6. Luxembourg: Kari Peters

The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is not a tropical country, but with a very small population, its Olympic Committee thought that no athlete would qualify for the games. Then cross country skier Kari Peters posted the best score of his career at his European Cup qualifying sprint in St Ulrich, Austria. The committee decided that he deserves a trip to Russia. Luxembourg sent no athletes to Vancouver in 2010, and hasn't won a medal in the Winter Games since 1992.

7. Hong Kong: Pan-To Barton Lui

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There are no Olympic-sized ice rinks in Hong Kong, so Lui Pan-To Barton had to travel to Changchun and Harbin on the mainland to train with the Chinese National team, and then to Seoul, South Korea, to train by himself. Lui qualified for the Sochi Olympics in short track speed skating, the sole athlete from Hong Kong. Although Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, it is still considered a “special administrative district,” and will be represented at the Olympics by Lui alone.

8. Tonga: Bruno Banani

Photograph by Steffen Rumke.

If you do a Google search for the name Bruno Banani, you will get the German underwear company of that name. But it’s also the name of the first Winter Olympian from Tonga. Born Fuahea Semi, the Tongan rugby player and luger went by Bruno Banani to court sponsorship from the company. It was part of a deal endorsed by the Tongan royal family to enable the athlete to afford training in Germany with the world’s best lugers. The company insinuated that the name was just a coincidence that led to the sponsorship, but that story unraveled quickly. It wasn’t “just” a hoax; Semi legally changed his name to Bruno Banani. The International Olympic Committee decided that even though using a sponsor’s name is in bad taste, Banani is the name on his passport, so he will be the lone athlete representing Tonga at Sochi in the luge event.

9. Kyrgyzstan: Dmitry Trelevski

Sochi will be the sixth Winter Games in which Kyrgyzstan has participated, and in five of those Olympics, only one athlete represented the nation. In Vancouver in 2010, Dmitry Trelevski and women’s cross country skier Olga Reshetkova made up the country’s biggest Olympic contingent ever. This time around, it will be Dmitry Trelevski by himself, competing in the men’s slalom, the men’s giant slalom, and the Super G events.

10. Mexico: Hubertus von Hohenlohe

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As his birthday is next week, Prince Hubertus of Hohenlohe-Langenburg will be 55 years old when he skis the men’s slalom in Sochi, the second-oldest winter Olympian ever. Born in Mexico, he is a descendant of a royal family from an area that is now part of Germany. Von Hohenlohe grew up in Austria, where he had plenty of opportunity to ski. He now lives in Liechtenstein and holds dual Austrian and Mexican citizenship. He is the only athlete representing Mexico at the Winter Games.

With his pedigree, von Hohenlohe could have competed for Austria, Liechtenstein, Spain, Italy, or Mexico. He selected Mexico “where I could control my own moves.” He founded the Mexican Ski Federation, of which he is the sole member. Off the slopes, von Hohenlohe is a musician and photographer. Watch a video of one of his latest songs. 

By the way, the oldest Olympian ever at the Winter Games was Swedish curler Carl August Kronlund, who won a medal in 1924 at age 58.

11. Nepal: Dachhiri Sherpa

Photograph by Elena Tartaglione.

Considering the elevation and available snow, it’s a wonder that Nepal doesn’t produce more winter Olympians. Dachhiri Sherpa will represent Nepal alone in Sochi in cross country skiing. The 43-year-old Sherpa has been competing in the sport since 2002 and holds the record for the Alpine ultramarathon Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. Sochi will be Sherpa’s third Olympics -he was the sole representative of Nepal in 2006 and 2010 as well.

12. Pakistan: Muhammad Karim

Pakistan originally qualified three skiers for the 2014 Olympics. Then the plan was to send one female and one male to the Games. And now a dispute between the Pakistan Olympic Association and the Pakistan government threatens the nation’s participation entirely. As of today, only one athlete, teenager Muhammad Karim, is slated to compete at Sochi, in the men’s slalom and the men’s giant slalom.

13. Paraguay: Julia Marino

Photograph from Facebook.

Paraguay has never participated in the Winter Games until this year. The sole athlete from the South American nation will be Julia Marino, who was born in Paraguay and then adopted by a family in Winchester, Massachusetts. She first visited Paraguay in 2013, and was treated as a celebrity

Make no mistake, Marino's participation in the Winter Olympics is a big deal in Paraguay, which she visited for the first time a couple of weeks ago. Her tour included press conferences and a television interview on Paraguay's version of "Good Morning America." As the only representative of her country, naturally she will be the flag bearer during the opening ceremonies.

Now a junior at the University of Colorado, Marino will be representing Paraguay by herself when she competes in the new Olympic sport of slopestyle skiing.

14. Venezuela: Antonio Jose Pardo Andretta

Venezuela has participated in the Winter Games in four past Olympics; in 2014 they will be represented by one athlete, Antonio Jose Pardo Andretta, competing in the men’s giant slalom.

15. Tajikistan: Andrei Drygin

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Tajikistan is a mountainous country, but it has only one ski station with one ski lift. Nevertheless, Andrei Drygin will be skiing for Tajikistan in Sochi as their only athlete for the fourth time. Drygin skied in Salt Lake City, Turin, and Vancouver, and will compete in three events, the men’s downhill, the men’s giant slalom, and the Super G, in Sochi.

16. Timor-Leste: Yohan Goutt Goncalves

Photograph from Facebook.

Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor, achieved independence from Indonesia in 2002 and became the first new nation of the 21st century. The nation participated in the last three Summer Games, and 2014 will mark East Timor’s first entry in the Winter Games. The country will be represented by skier Yohan Goutt Goncalves in the men’s slalom. Goutt Goncalves was born in France to a French father and an East Timorese mother. The 19-year-old skier said, 

“I wanted to go to the Olympics representing East Timor as it would be a double experience,” he says. “Of course there is the competition, but also the chance to play the role of diplomat. It’s a brand new country, only formed in 2002 and still developing. I particularly want to show that there is more to East Timor than war.”

17. Virgin Islands: Jasmine Campbell

Photograph from Virgin Islands Olympic Committee.

Jasmine Campbell was born in St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and moved to Sun Valley, Idaho at the age of nine. She is a student at Whitman College (but is taking a year off to get ready for the Sochi Olympics) and lives in Hailey, Idaho. She comes by her Olympic dreams honestly: her father, John Campbell, skied at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France. Campbell will be the only athlete representing the Virgin Islands, competing in the women’s slalom and giant slalom events.

18. Zimbabwe: Luke Steyn

Zimbabwe has never participated in the Winter Games before. In Sochi, Luke Steyn will proudly carry the flag and compete in the men’s slalom and giant slalom. Steyn was born in Harare, Zimbabwe, and moved with his family to Switzerland at age two. He lived in several countries of Europe while growing up. He is a student at the University of Colorado, currently taking a year off to train for the Olympics.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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