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6 Curious College Donations

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You know how you have those friends who you always call by their entire names? Civil engineering grad student Katie Kelly is one of those people. On the plus side, when she donates lots of money to Princeton in the future and gets a bathroom, lake or horse stable named after her, the Katie Kelly Lakeside Bathroom for the Equestrian Arts rolls off of the tongue really nicely. -Stacy Conradt

6 Curious College Donations
by Katie Kelly

Universities are always looking for cash from their alumni (or anyone else with a big enough checkbook). But sometimes colleges are offered donations of another variety. Here are stories of six rather unusual gifts given to universities across the world.

University of Colorado at Boulder


Endowing a school, building, or even a classroom with one's name is a pretty typical fundraising practice among universities today"¦ demanding a bathroom to commemorate yourself isn't quite as commonplace. Brad Feld, a local venture capitalist, donated $25,000 to the University of Colorado on the condition that a plaque would be placed on the door of a second-floor men's restroom in one of the campus' technology centers. He originally made the conditional offer to his alma mater, MIT, but was rejected. Feld, in an interview with Boulder's Daily Camera, states: "I just wanted a plaque outside of the men's room to inspire people as they walk in to do their business." Quite fittingly, the quote reads, "The best ideas often come at inconvenient times "“ don't ever close your mind to them."

Princeton University

With an $11.2 billion endowment and a current plan to raise an additional $1.75 billion, Princeton knows how to bring in cash. But Andrew Carnegie's donation is a large liquid asset of a different type: a lake. Carnegie was a devoted philanthropist, founding libraries and universities in the United States and Scotland, and Princeton was eager to add their name to his list of lucky donors. While sitting for a portrait one day Carnegie regaled the artist, Howard Russel Butler, with tales of the lochs he had built in Scotland. Butler, an alumnus of Princeton University and its varsity crew team, described the crowded narrow canal that the team was practicing on and his plans to build an adjacent lake. Carnegie immediately took interest and undertook the project himself. At the dedication of Lake Carnegie, University president Woodrow Wilson (the future President of the United States) approached the donor, eager to involve Carnegie in funding new academic programs. Carnegie responded with disinterest, saying "I have already given you a lake." Wilson's reported response? "We needed bread, and you gave us cake."

Tufts University

jumboThe donation that P. T. Barnum made in 1889 dwarfs the small peanuts being donated to the University by recent college graduates. The great circus entertainer P.T. Barnum was one of the earliest supporters of Tufts, and he donated many of his deceased circus specimens to Tufts' Barnum Museum of Natural History, which he also contributed. Of all the exotic species he bestowed upon the college, his biggest (literally) and most impactful specimen donation was Jumbo the elephant. Barnum promised the skeleton of the 13-foot tall African elephant to the Museum of Natural History, and its hide to Tufts. Upon Jumbo's death, he was mounted and sent to live at Tufts. The students immediately took to Jumbo, and he became the school's mascot. However, tragedy struck in 1975 when Jumbo and the structure surrounding him, then known simply as Barnum Hall, was destroyed in a fire. Athletic administrators, desperate to keep a remnant of their beloved mascot, scooped up some of the ashes into a peanut butter jar which remains on the desk of the Tufts athletic director to this day.

Churchill College, Cambridge University


Frances Crick (of DNA fame) had fundraising of a different type in mind for Cambridge University, intending to transition Churchill from leading the House of Commons to leading a house of ill repute. To honor former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Cambridge decided to build a new college in his honor in 1960. Crick was offered a fellowship in the college, and the fervent atheist accepted on the condition that a chapel never be constructed in the college, believing that religion had no place in a serious institution focused on science and technology. However, when funding for the construction of a chapel was offered by a donor, the college agreed to proceed. Crick protested to Churchill, who responded that "none need enter [the chapel] unless they wish." Crick responded by saying that if that is the case, the college ought to build a brothel under the same grounds and even included a check for 10 guineas as his contribution towards such a business. Unfortunately for Cambridge students, Crick's facetious proposal was not accepted and he resigned.

Cal-Poly Pomona

W. K. Kellogg, of cereal fame, was an avid fan of Arabian horses since his childhood. After starting his namesake company with his brother and earning millions of dollars, he purchased land in Pomona, California, to establish a world-class Arabian horse ranch. In 1932 he donated the ranch to the state of California, stipulating that the horses must be kept, along with the traditional Sunday horse shows to display the grace and versatility of the Arabian horse. When the property was transferred to the California State Polytechnic University at Pomona in 1949, the school agreed to uphold these terms. The Sunday shows continue today, performed by a student drill team on the first Sunday of each month, October through May.

University of Calgary

While light saber wars between students are routine at universities like Cal Tech and MIT, the University of Calgary lays claim to one of the largest collections of sci-fi material in the galaxy. When devoted sci-fi collector Bob Gibson died in 2001, his family had no idea what to do with his 30,000 piece collection - the boxes of books and magazines took up most of the house. His son, an alumnus of the University of Calgary, decided that the collection would be best preserved and shared by donating it to his alma mater. Thus, with the establishment of the Bob Gibson Collection of Speculative Fiction, the University of Calgary instantly became the home of one of the world's leading collections of science fiction.

Check out the rest of our College Weekend festivities.

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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]