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12 College Courses We Wish Our Schools Had Offered

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It’s that time of year! Here's a look at all of the fascinating college classes you wish your school put on the course list.

1. Topics in Comparative Media: American Pro Wrestling, MIT

Image credit: WWE

If a course that studies "Macho Man" Randy Savage and "Diamond" Dallas Page sounds like your dream come true, congratulations: you can enroll. Originally taught in 2007, this class is now part of MIT’s OpenCourseWare program, a totally free way to “take” MIT classes. (They do ask that you consider donating, though.) Think you’re ready to sign up? Here’s the course description:

Beginning with wrestling's roots in sport and carnival, the class examines how new technologies and changes in the television industry led to evolution for pro wrestling style and promotion and how shifts in wrestling characters demonstrate changes in the depiction of American masculinity. The class will move chronologically in an examination of how wrestling characters and performances have changed, focusing particularly on the 1950s to the present. Students may have previous knowledge of wrestling but are not required to, nor are they required to be a fan (although it is certainly not discouraged, either).

2. Political Ceramics, Bennington College

This is no metaphor about the fragile state of the nation. Students taking Political Ceramics will “explore and identify culturally held meanings, values, and imagery stemming from the political discussion of our national debate leading up to the November election.” And then they will sculpt something from their findings and fire it in a kiln.

3. Staying Sane in a Crazy World, Oberlin College

“War, terrorism, and natural disasters create inhuman life conditions. Yet we know that people do survive these conditions and may even go on to flourish. This course asks: What is the human response to problems of global proportions? How do people cope in a hostile, unpredictable world that may lack the basic necessities for life? We will examine the scientific literature and personal accounts to understand how people stay sane in the face of unbearable circumstances.”

4. Pirates! Archaeologies of Piracy in the Atlantic World, Brown University

It’s not exactly a study of Captain Jack Sparrow and the Dread Pirate Roberts, but it still sounds pretty sweet. With a focus on the mid-17th century, “the golden age of piracy in the Atlantic World,” the Brown course uses history and archaeology to “investigate the way in which the image of the pirate has been constructed in the West, as an embodiment of cultural, legal, moral and sexual transgression, and as an object of both fascination and fear which is still current in the contemporary, global world.”

Parrot optional. I think.

5. Tattoos in American Popular Culture, Pitzer College

Love looking at cool ink? Then you’d probably be a fan of this first-year seminar at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, that looks at tattoo culture in the U.S.

6. Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame, University of South Carolina Columbia

Although a class about meat dresses and head-sized bows made of human hair would be pretty interesting, that’s not what you’re going to get from this. Students in this class learn why we’re fascinated with Gaga’s meat dresses and hair bows, “to unravel some of the sociologically relevant dimensions of the fame of Lady Gaga.”

Lest you still think required reading might include liner notes from The Fame Monster, the professor is careful to note, “This is not a course in music or cultural studies. … This is not a course in Lady Gaga but in sociology”.

7. Monsters in Word and Image, Centre College

Want to pick up a little college credit for studying werewolves and wendigos? (Me too.) If you attend Centre College in Danville, KY, you actually have that option. In Monsters in Word and Image, “Students explore monsters and the broad cultural issues raised by their inclusion in literary, visual, and performance arts, tracing some perennial types (e.g., the biformed human, the ogre, the werewolf) from antiquity to the present as they appear in such genres as epic and lyric poetry, fiction, drama, opera, film, painting and sculpture.”

The best part? No prereqs.

8. Gossip, Cornell University

The next time someone tells you to quit gossiping, tell them you’re just valuing “the making and unmaking and remaking and redissolution of hundreds of old and new categorical imaginings concerning all the kinds it may take to make up a world,” as cultural theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick says. This graduate course at Cornell uses that theory to “investigate the ways in which gossip may produce provisional maps of the world,” but expect to study the works of Freud and Kierkegaard, not Perez Hilton and Page Six.

9. Paradox, Williams College

Ahem.

There are three grains of sand on my desk. This is unfortunate, but at least there isn't a heap of sand on my desk. That would be really worrisome. On the other hand, there is a heap of sand in my backyard. I don't know how exactly how many grains of sand are in this heap, but let's say 100,000. My daughter removes one grain of sand. I don't know why, she just does. It seems like there is still a heap of sand in my backyard. In fact, it seems like you can't change a heap of sand into something that isn't a heap of sand by removing one grain of sand. Right? But now we have a problem. By repeated application of the same reasoning, it seems that even after she removes 99,997 grains of sand--I don't know what she wants with all this sand, but I'm starting to worry about that girl--there is still a heap of sand in my backyard. But three grains isn't enough for a heap. So there is not a heap in my backyard. Now I'm confused. Where did my reasoning go wrong?

Now that’s a class description that gets your attention. I’d be interested in hearing more from the professor who wrote that, wouldn’t you? In addition to the sorites paradox above, this Williams class will also examine Zeno's paradoxes of motion and plurality, the liar's paradox, the surprise exam paradox, paradoxes of material constitution, Newcomb's Problem and the Prisoner's Dilemma, to name a few.

10. How to Win a Beauty Pageant, Oberlin College

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Nope, it’s not about putting Vaseline on your teeth and how to choose a good waterproof mascara. The course’s full title is “How to Win a Beauty Pageant: Race, Gender, Culture, and U.S. National Identity,” and it looks at the history of pageants from the 1920s through now to analyze them as “unique site[s] for the interplay of race, gender, class, sexuality, and nation.” And hey, field trip opportunity: the class actually gets to view a pageant in the flesh.

11. Did You Hear the One About...?, Bennington College

Here’s another fun one from Bennington, which apparently takes jokes very seriously:

“This is an advanced research seminar on jokes, joking, and humor. We will read some classic and recent theory in psychology and related disciplines, as well as mostly recent research. Students will be expected to design and conduct research of their own design, individually or in collaboration with others, and to contribute to others' research on a regular basis. Readings are likely to include the following: Billig, Laughter and Ridicule; Freud, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious; Goldstein, Laughter Out of Place; Holt, Stop Me If You've Heard This; Trimble, A Brief History of the Smile.”

So you’re telling me SeinLanguage isn’t on the required reading list?

12. Who Am I?, Brown University

The perfect course for college freshmen. No, like most of the classes on this list, “Who Am I?” is not what it seems. It’s actually a “study of self in contemporary society,” and an examination of the “structural and situational forces that shape the self and their impact on personal development, orientations to the world, and interpersonal behavior”. It really is limited to first year students, however, so if you’re a confused sophomore, you’re out of luck.

Bonus: UChicago Conference on Jersey Shore Studies, University of Chicago

This was a one-day conference held on the University of Chicago campus last year, but it’s definitely worth a mention just based on the keynotes: "Guidosexuality," "'You're Not Even Italian': Stereotype, Authenticity, and the Warped Reality of 'Jersey Shore'" and "The Monetization of Being: Reputational Labor, Brand Culture, and Why 'Jersey Shore' Does, and Does Not, Matter."

Even better, papers presented at the conference included "GTL (Gym, Tan, Labor): Reproducing Labor-Power on the Shore," "The Jersey Saga: Honor Culture in Medieval Iceland and Modern Seaside" and "Foucault's Going To The Jersey Shore, Bitch!"

See Also: 22 Fascinating and Bizarre Fall 2011 Classes

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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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May 23, 2017
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