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Lifestyles of the Rich, Famous and Surprisingly Smart

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Danica McKellar of Wonder Years fame has written a textbook. Math Doesn't Suck encourages middle school girls to master mathematics. McKellar is even tutoring students through her website.

This got us thinking: If Winnie Cooper could grow up to be a math whiz, there must be similar stories about the academic pursuits of other famous people. With help from research editor Kara Kovalchik, we've compiled a list of twenty celebrities with impressive degrees and/or unexpected majors.

dolph.jpgDolph Lundgren is nothing like Ivan Drago, the mindless Russian machine he portrayed in Rocky IV. He's not even Russian. (He's a Swede.) Dolph has a masters degree in chemical engineering from the University of Sydney. He was even awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to M.I.T., but left after two weeks to pursue acting in New York. And he speaks five languages: Swedish, English, German, some French and some Japanese.

degree_BrianMay.jpgQueen guitarist Brian May recently earned his PhD in astronomy from London's Imperial College, handing in his thesis, "Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud." He's written a book called Bang! The Complete History of the Universe. May is also an active blogger, with a page on his official website called Brian's Soapbox.

cindycrawford.jpgCindy Crawford may not have her PhD. Or a masters. OK, she didn't even finish her freshman year of college. But up until that point, she was quite the scholar. Crawford was DeKalb High School's valedictorian and earned a scholarship to Northwestern, where she briefly studied chemical engineering. Then the whole modeling thing took off. The lesson: stay in school, unless you're supermodel hot.

Keep reading for Borat, Blossom and Hugh Hefner.

borat3.jpgBefore Ali G and Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen studied history at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he wrote his thesis on the role of Jews in the American civil rights movement. Before breaking into the fake-interviewer business, he worked for investment powerhouses JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs.

greggraffin.jpgGreg Graffin formed Bad Religion with a few high school classmates when he was 15. He is credited with helping rejuvenate the Los Angeles punk scene in the mid-1980s. And when he's not touring, he's a professor of life science at UCLA. Graffin "“ sorry, Dr. Graffin "“ earned a PhD in biology from Cornell. His thesis was titled "Monism, Atheism and the Naturalist Worldview: Perspectives from Evolutionary Biology."

mayim.jpgWe don't set the bar too high for child stars. Avoid jail and rehab and exceed all expectations. But Mayim Bialik has kept her name out of the tabloids and her nose in the books. The former Blossom star is closing in on her PhD in neuroscience at UCLA. She's writing her thesis on Prader-Willi syndrome, a strange DNA disorder that forces its victims to go crazy and destroy their homes in a desperate search for food.

More tidbits about the academic lives of celebrities:

Art Garfunkel has a masters in mathematics from Columbia University.

Frank Capra graduated from Caltech (then named the Throop College of Technology) in 1918 with a degree in chemical engineering.

Jay Leno received his BA in speech therapy from Emerson College in 1973.

Gene Simmons of KISS studied education at Richmond College on Staten Island, and spent a stint teaching elementary school in Spanish Harlem. He also was a personal assistant for an editor at Vogue.

"Weird Al" Yankovic graduated as his high school's valedictorian at age 16, and later received his degree in architecture from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo.

Mira Sorvino graduated magna cum laude from Harvard with a degree in East Asian studies.

"¢ Milwaukee Brewers lefty Chris Capuano graduated from Duke University with a degree in economics. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

"¢ Two-time Best Actress Oscar winner Jodie Foster earned a degree in literature from Yale. She graduated magna cum laude.

"¢ Although he didn't graduate, Ashton Kutcher studied biomedical engineering at the University of Iowa.

Mick Jagger attended the London School of Economics before dropping out to give music a try.

Steve Martin studied philosophy at California State University at Long Beach before transferring to UCLA and switching his major to theater studies. He left school to focus on comedy.

Hugh Hefner was a psychology major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and he graduated in under three years.

"¢ And let's finish things up by coming full circle. Danica McKeller's Wonder Years co-star, Fred Savage, graduated from Stanford University in 1999 with a degree in English. His brother Ben, of Boy Meets World fame, graduated from the same institution in 2004.

I'm sure there are scores of other celebrities with impressive (or unexpected) degrees or majors. If you know of one, add to the list.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]