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8 Winter Olympics Demo Sports

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Wikimedia Commons

This year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia have added 12 new sports to the global competition, making the 22nd Winter Olympics the largest version of the event yet. But this isn't the first time the Olympics have attempted to introduce new competitions to the world. The event has long made both room and time to include “demonstration sports” during their run. These sports are played for promotional purposes and some eventually become official Olympic events. Most don't—but there are certainly some interesting entries here (including two that involve dogs).

1. Skijoring

Sure, there are plenty of Olympic-level sports that the layman should not try at home, but few seem as primed for disaster as skijoring, a game that centers on being pulled by animals while on skis. Picture your goofy neighbor who likes to go skateboarding with his or her pup pulling them along. Then imagine that all happening on snow and ice.

Skijoring involves one cross-country skier either being pulled by dogs (often from such go-get-'em breeds as Huskies, Malamutes, Samoyeds, and Inuit dogs) or one trick skier going over jumps and obstacles while being pulled by a single horse. Equestrian skijoring also includes cross-country style races, but most competitions involve the acrobatic elements. You can also skijor behind a snowmobile, but it's far less cute.

Skijoring was only demonstrated at one Olympics—1928 in St. Moritz—but the sport is still in competition across the world. Whitefish, Montana is home to the annual World Skijoring Championships.

2. Ice stock sport

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Though curling is now curiously en vogue when it comes to nifty Olympic sports, it’s not the only “sliding things across ice” competition to take the Games by storm. Ice stock sport (also known as “Bavarian curling”) has demonstrated at two different Winter Olympics—in 1936 in Bavaria, Germany (of course!) and in 1964 in Innsbruck, Austria.

Like curling, ice stock sport centers on sliding an object (in this case, the eponymous “ice stock,” which looks like a big, flat circle with a stick on top) across ice. Winning at ice stock sport hinges on hitting a target or covering the longest distance. There are many version of ice stock, but “target shooting” and “distance shooting” are the most popular. Despite being a winter sport, athletes will also play the game during the summer, using tarmacs to slide their ice stocks along.

3. Military patrol

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Nothing says “fun Olympic sport” quite like the name “military patrol,” but this demonstration event actually has some niftiness to it—like its team element and strict backpack weight requirements (OK, maybe the latter isn’t as fun). Military patrol has so far demonstrated at three different Winter Games, making it the most popular demo event. It's a combination of cross-country skiing, ski mountaineering, and rifle shooting.

If that sounds familiar, it's because the sport inspired the biathlon, which is still an Olympic sport today.

4. Ski ballet

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Though ski ballet (also known as “acroski”) is no longer a part of freestyle skiing, it’s hard to deny the allure of a sport so rigorously dedicated to embodying its name. Ski ballet is a choreographed event performed on a smooth slope. While the sport tried to adapt to changing times–in the '70s, routines came with music, and in the '80s pair ballet competitions emerged—the International Ski Federation ceased all formal competition of the sport in 2000.

Ski ballet demonstrated at two different Olympics during its heyday—in 1988 in Calgary and then again in 1992 in Albertville, France.

5. Bandy

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A precursor to hockey, bandy is another on-ice game that involves skating, sticks, and goals. Its rules are similar to soccer and bandy teams put at least eight players on the ice at any given time. The ice area is much bigger than in hockey, and is best compared to a football field. Another big difference between bandy and hockey is that bandy is played with a small round ball, not a small flat puck. Bandy only demonstrated at the Olympics once, back in 1952 in Oslo, Norway. 

6. Sled-dog racing

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Perhaps the most well-known sport of all the demonstration events, sled-dog racing showed at the 1932 Games in Lake Placid and then again in 1952 in Oslo, but it never made it to official status.

Still, sled-dog racing is incredibly popular and has plenty of its own competitions (like the world-famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race) to keep it going.

7. Speed skiing

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You’ve got to hand it to speed skiing—they’ve certainly got some simplicity going on here. As the name lets on, speed skiing is all about velocity, and the aim of the sport is to ski downhill in one line as quickly as possible. It's both totally exhilarating and horrifically terrifying. While the Olympics still play host to plenty of other fast skiing events, the speeds that speed skiers hit (around 125 MPH) are much faster than the numbers put up by slalom racers and the like. The current record holder, Italy’s Simone Origone, was clocked at 156.2 MPH back in April of 2006.

Speed skiing was shown at the Olympics just once, back in 1992 at the Albertville Games, home to the famous Les Arcs course, a 2 kilometer trail that has seen three of the four world speed skiing records.

8. Winter pentathlon

If you think the biathlon features a weird pairing of events, it’s time for you to get hip to the winter pentathlon.

Like the biathlon, the pentathlon involves both cross-country skiing and shooting, but also adds downhill skiing, fencing, and horseback riding. It was demonstrated only once, at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Fourteen athletes competed in the complicated sport, and while it sounds like the sort of sport that needs a bevy of different arenas, they simplified things—every event was held outdoors, including the fencing.

While not an official Olympic event, the winter pentathlon is held every year at the Military World Games.

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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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