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12 College Classes We Wish Our Schools Had Offered

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I took a course last semester called "Research Methods and Theory." It was as exciting as it sounds. I would much rather have been taking one of these 12 classes. From pop culture to maple syrup, these aren't your average lectures.

1. The Horror Film in Context (Bowdoin)

With Halloween approaching, you will probably soon discover my love of scary movies "“ especially bad ones (Chopping Mall, anyone?) That's why I wish Bowdoin's course "The Horror Film in Context" was offered as a graduate class at Iowa State. It's not about the psyche of Freddy and Jason, however "“ students taking the class can expect to discuss why society is infatuated with horror movies and death in general.

2. Simpsons and Philosophy (Cal-Berkeley)

three-eyed-fish.jpegI'm sure my husband is considering enrolling at the University of California at Berkeley as we speak, just to take "Simpsons and Philosophy." You'll need to know more than Simpsons trivia "“ the class takes an in-depth look at how the long-running cartoon depicts social issues such as racism and politics. Passing the class, which includes writing a 22-minute show for the final exam, earns students two credits.

3. Maple Syrup "“ The Real Thing (Alfred)

maple.jpgChances are you probably don't spend too much brain power pondering maple syrup, besides wondering whether it's most delicious on French toast or pancakes. Alfred University in New York is changing that for all students who take the course "Maple Syrup "“ The Real Thing." It covers every aspect of the sweet breakfast topping, from production to products to, yes, recipes.

4. The Science of Harry Potter (Frostburg State)

HarryPotter_small.jpgAnother course near and dear to my heart is "The Science of Harry Potter," offered at Frostburg State University in Maryland. This class combines the fantastical with the physical by asking if some of the seemingly impossible things in the popular series could actually be plausible. Think about it: if there is a possibility that an invisibility cloak or a flying broomstick could actually exist, wouldn't you want to know?

5. Oprah Winfrey "“ The Tycoon (U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

oprah.jpgOprah is conquering the world. The talk show, the book club, the magazine"¦ and now, history class? The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offered "History 298: Oprah Winfrey "“ the Tycoon" in its class schedule several years ago. Like many of the other courses on this list, the class was more than meets the eye. Although it appears to be about the famous talk show queen, the class uses Oprah's cultural rise to study race, class and gender issues.

6. Far Side Entomology (Oregon State)

thefarside.gifI took an entomology class during my undergrad and found it much more interesting than I thought I would. Imagine how enthralled I would have been with Oregon State's "Far Side Entomology," which used Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons to study insects. Larson's tactic of giving his insects human qualities make them more relatable, which in turn gave students research ideas and questions they may have not otherwise thought of. Before you commence transfer proceedings, know that this class is no longer offered.

7. History of Electronic Dance Music (UCLA)

ccmusic.jpgDo you still love C+C Music Factory? Get pumped to Deee-Lite's "Groove is in the Heart" while driving? Then the UCLA's "History of Electronic Dance Music" would probably be a cakewalk for you. According to the syllabus, "Class lectures will deal with the historical narratives told about the music, musical form and technique in dance music, the political and cultural implications of the relentless hedonism of the dance floor, the influence of chemicals and technology on music production and consumption, and the aesthetic possibilities and pitfalls when popular music is no longer synonymous with popular song."

8. The Future is Lost: TV Series as Cultural Phenomenon (Tufts)

Lost-logo.jpgNext February is a very important month. Why, you ask? Because it's when Lost returns. If, like me, you're desperately jonesing for a Lost fix NOW, go ahead and enroll at Tufts University, the home of a 13-week Lost seminar. Be prepared to talk about more than Jack's propensity for crying and Sawyer's offensive nicknames for the other Lostaways, though. Topics include thematic complexity, mechanical complexity, literary references and philosophies. The course culminates with students pitching an idea for a television series to the rest of their classmates.

9. Goldberg's Canon: Makin' Whoopi (Bates)

whoopi.jpgIf you're excited about Whoopi Goldberg's The View debut, it's too bad you missed out on Bates College's "Goldberg's Canon: Makin' Whoopi," the only course anywhere (that I could find) dedicated to the former Caryn Johnson. As far as I can tell, the last time the class was offered was the 2003-04 school year, so anyone wanting to discuss her "controversial persona as an antagonistic public figure" (so says the syllabus) is out of luck for now.

10. Muppet Magic: Jim Henson's Art (UC-Santa Cruz)

muppets.jpgFor some reason, I feel like the ratio of mental_floss readers who grew up watching and learning from Sesame Street is probably high. Thus, by my theory, most of us would be thrilled to count Theater Arts 80L, "Muppet Magic: Jim Henson's Art" at the University of California Santa Cruz as part of our course load. The class studies how Muppets have changed television, film and art since Jim Henson created them.

11. Getting Dressed (Princeton)

fashion.jpgSeriously, some days getting dressed takes a lot more effort than it should. Enter Princeton's "Getting Dressed" class, a freshmen-only course that lets students discuss controversial topics such as jeans, baseball caps, tattoos, flip-flops and Chuck Taylors. It's more complicated than just figuring out what to wear in the morning, though. The class discussed how people use fashion to do everything from study history to assess character. Although it doesn't appear that the class is offered any longer, Princeton does offer other interesting-sounding freshmen seminars, including "Google and Ye Shall Find?" and "Good to be Shifty: American Swindlers."

12. Biblical Model for Home and Family (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary)

A real controversy exists around the "Biblical Model for Home and Family" course at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The class, for females only, teaches cooking, sewing, and says that wives should submit graciously to their husbands. OK, what I said at the beginning of this article was wrong: I'd much rather sit through "Research Methods and Theory" than learn how to "submit graciously."

So, what's the craziest class you've ever taken?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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