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10 Peculiar Things Public Schools Have Banned

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We’ve all heard stories about schools banning books or gang-affiliated clothing, but there are many less-publicized bans in effect. Here are ten of the more interesting cases.

1. Pogs

Remember Pogs? The game featured cardboard discs printed with some kind of design on one side (sometimes a TV show or company promo), and was played by stacking the pieces face-down and pummeling them with a slammer (a heavier metal piece). The overturned pogs were then kept by the player in turn; when the face-down Pogs were gone, the player with the most in his or her stack won. This ban was unofficial in my middle school but, citing concerns that the game promoted gambling, schools in Arizona and Washington, DC, decided to formally remove the collectible pieces from their premises.

(Bonus fact! Paper pogs were printed by AAFES as a form of currency during Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom for use in contingency areas. The double-sided gift certificates were thinner and lighter than traditional pogs and came in 5-cent, 10-cent, and 25-cent denominations. They could be redeemed at any AAFES store worldwide.)

2. Dictionaries

When a Menifee, California, parent who was volunteering in her son’s fifth-grade class at Oak Meadows Elementary came across the definition of “oral sex” in the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Tenth Edition, 1994), she filed a complaint with the principal about explicit language in the reference book and they were immediately removed. The reason for having a collegiate dictionary in an elementary school? “[W]e have students who are reading at much higher levels,” according to a spokeswoman for the district. According to reports, no parents attended the board meeting to express concerns about the dictionary, and a few days later they were returned to the classrooms.

3. A Hat With Toy Soldiers on It

The assignment asked students to make hats to wear when they met their pen pals. An eight-year-old Rhode Island boy decided to make his patriotic, and affixed little soldiers to a camouflaged cap. But because toy soldiers with plastic guns aren’t allowed under the school’s weapons ban, the hat was deemed inappropriate. [Image courtesy of CBS/WPRI.]

The school’s principal suggested replacing the gun-toting Army men with soldiers without weapons. The boy only had one toy that qualified—a soldier with binoculars—so he wore a plain hat instead. Lt. Gen. Reginald Centracchio, the retired commander of the Rhode Island National Guard, praised the school for supporting the military in the past, but disagreed with the hat ban. “The American soldier is armed,” Centracchio told the Associated Press. “That’s why they’re called the armed forces. If you’re going to portray it any other way, you miss the point.”

4. Silly Bandz, Slap Bracelets, and Cancer Awareness Bands

Bracelets can’t catch a break. First, in the early 90s, the slap bracelet craze came to a grinding halt when kids started injuring each other from “improper use” of the toy. Exposed metal edges were found to “cause hand and wrist injuries to children,” according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. More recently, the pink rubber bands proclaiming “I Heart Boobies” in support of breast cancer awareness and the various-shaped Silly Bandz have been deemed “inappropriate” and “distracting” and removed from many schools.

5. Air Jordans

In Chicago, no less. Way back in 1996, fears of gang-related activity prompted Calumet High School officials to ban all clothing red, black and white in color – including the then-new red and black Air Jordans and Chicago Bulls attire. [Image: Air Jordan 5 (1990) courtesy of SneakerFiles.]

6. “Mom” and “Dad”

Not your mom and dad, just the words “mom” and “dad” in school-distributed communications. In 2007, in an effort to avoid exclusionary language considered negative to same-sex couples, Governor Schwarzenegger signed a bill prohibiting the use of the terms “mom and dad” or “husband and wife” to address memos, letters and permissions slips. This may not seem like a big deal (alternatives are “parents” or “parent or guardian,” which is standard enough), but of course there was serious backlash—Governor Schwarzenegger was accused of “ensuring that every California school becomes a homosexual-bisexual-transsexual indoctrination center,” by the president of the Campaign for Children and Families.

7. Peanuts

With peanut allergies on the rise (up 50% in some areas in the space of a year), some schools have banned all peanut products from the cafeteria, including the ubiquitous school-age favorite, PB&J. Others are more lenient, however, and offer multiple lunch options for allergic students and warnings on foods containing peanuts.

8. Jamie Oliver

Los Angeles schools aren’t too happy with Jamie Oliver, pioneer of healthful and inexpensive school lunch programs in the UK. In a move to illustrate how much sugar the LA school system gives students in one week (just in flavored milk!), Oliver loaded an old school bus with 57 tons of white sand. The stunt was met with fierce resistance by school officials and LA-area parents, and the Food Revolution host and his crew are banned from working on location in the city. Oliver still hopes to get into the city schools and help overhaul the lunch program, but for now it looks like he’s hanging out with the Chicago schools’ vegetables.

9. Vegetables

No, really. Not all vegetables, of course—just the ones grown on school grounds. In what seems like a setback for the local food movement, in 2010 Chicago Public Schools prohibited produce grown in the 40 school-sponsored gardens to be served in the district’s cafeterias. Their reasoning? “In order to use food in the school food program, it would need to meet specific/certified growing practices,” a district spokeswoman said.

10. Skinny Jeans

Sure, sagging pants have been under a firestorm since the early 90s. But more recently, in 2009, a school in Mesquite, TX, put a moratorium on skinny jeans. Aside from looking silly (as evidenced by the Menudo pic), the school board decided the emo-favored garb is “disruptive of student learning.” The school also banned striped and checked shirts for the same reason.
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Did your school ban anything interesting? Let us know in the comments.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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