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Why Are the Dutch So Good at Speed Skating?

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Getty Images

When Olympics broadcasters were predicting each nation's medal count, not many people thought the Netherlands would be battling for the lead. (They were in pole position 13 days in and, as of press time, they're tied for second.) Even more incredible, the Netherlands has accumulated 21 of its 22 medals in one sport: long-track speed skating. The lone non-long-track speed skating medal? Short-track speed skating.  

By taking 70 percent of all possible medals there are to collect in speed skating, the Netherlands’ performance is the most dominant by any nation in any Olympics discipline in Winter Olympics history.

How did they get so good?

Famous for being located below sea level and held up through a system of dikes, the Netherlands is a place with a low water table and many lakes and rivers. Additionally, the Netherlands is one of the most urbanized nations, and cities like Amsterdam and Delft rely heavily on canals for transportation. In the wintertime, the Dutch have for years skated long distances along those canals and frozen rivers to get around locally or even visit neighboring towns.

Proof of this tradition is the Elfstedentocht race (how often it's held depends on ice conditions; sometimes in consecutive years, sometimes with more than 20 years between contests). The 120-mile race runs around the perimeter of the Dutch province of Friesland and stops in 11 cities. It dates back to 1909, when it was an organized tour, although people were skating the course as far back as the 18th century. The King of the Netherlands himself completed the event in 1986.

The inaugural world speed skating championship in 1893 grew out of the Amsterdam Skating Club, and the competition only had two non-Dutch entrants. The event’s first all-around winner was Jaap Eden, who became one of the country’s most famous sports icons and one of Europe's first athletic superstars. It also helped his legend that he won the world cycling championship the following year and set many world records. Amsterdam’s Jaap Eden baan bears his name and was the country’s first artificial 400 meter ice rink. It's also one the world's most famous.

Why did the Dutch focus their love of ice skating specifically into competitive speed skating? Speed Skating World editor and Dutch speed skating enthusiast Irene Postma explained in an interview with the International Business Times that the national love for the sport dates to the 1968 Olympics. It was then that two charismatic Dutch speed skaters, Ard Schenk and Kees Verkerk, captured the nation's imagination with medal-winning performances just as the sport was being televised. It wasn't just their athleticism, but also their sportsmanship that inspired the Dutch.

An example of how big the sport is in the Netherlands is that U.S. speedskater Shani Davis is virtually unknown on the streets of his native Chicago during non-Olympic years, but he's considered a hero whenever he goes to Holland.

Today, Holland has eight different professional speed-skating clubs and over twenty long-track ice rinks (the standard size for Olympic competition), while the U.S. has only six such tracks and no professional clubs. Don't expect the Dutch to lose their competitive advantage any time soon.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]