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When Good Marching Bands Go Bad

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Editor's Note: The deadline for our $50,000 Tuition Giveaway is January 31. Rather than nag you every day with a post that starts and ends with "TIME IS RUNNING OUT," we've decided to keep the scholarship top of mind by re-running some of our favorite college-centric stories and quizzes. Today's selection comes from our former marching band correspondent Steven Clontz.

In my first full-band rehearsal for my university's marching band, our director emphasized one thing: Class. Wherever we go, we are representatives of our state and university. Therefore, we must always be vigilant in portraying the best image possible. This dedication to class is, tragically, not universally shared. If you would, I'd like you to join me on a journey, examining the seedy underbelly of the marching band world. Maybe you'll find out what happens"¦ when MARCHING BANDS GO BAD!

1. University of Miami

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First stop on our tour of terror: Miami, Florida. The University of Miami banned its own band from performing during halftime for at least one football game in 1999, after band members on one bus were caught drinking, watching pornographic videos, and mooning passers-by on an away game road trip.

2. University of Wisconsin

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The Hurricanes could have learned from The University of Wisconsin, as far as avoiding the long arm of the law is concerned. UW's band was placed on probation just this past year, when accusations of hazing surfaced. The claims were of a relatively innocuous nature, at first, with one band member being pressured into shaving his head before a September 2006 game. Upon further investigation, it appeared that band members were also disrobing and dancing seminude on one of their buses returning home after the game. Crazy thing is, this type of behavior had been going on for years.

UW-Madison's Chancellor John Wiley: "It has become increasing clear that certain types of sexualized and hazing behavior are an ingrained part of the band's culture." I prefer my section's tradition of singing the word "trombones" to the tune of Amazing Grace, personally.

3. Prairie View A&M

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Let's move on to Prairie View A&M, facing off against Southern University. Shortly before the September 19, 1998 game, Prairie View was voted the nation's top historically black band. This slighted many members of the penultimate selection, Southern University's "Human Jukebox". What should have remained a distant flame war spilled over into a game, billed by many as simply The Battle of the Bands. (Prairie View's football team had a losing streak which had lasted for nearly a decade.)

What followed is open to interpretation. Southern's band had taken the field first, and was trying to exit via the sidelines, when they were blocked by Prairie View's band. Prairie View claimed that Southern's band was "charging" them, while Southern claimed that Prairie View was actively trying to stop them. Whatever the case, the result was Southern's drum major Terrell Jackson being smacked in the face by a couple trumpets. This, in turn, spurred on an all-out brawl, with members of both bands bludgeoning each other with drumsticks and trombones, sending many to the hospital. Perhaps Prairie View would have been better served sending their marching band out on the field to play football instead; once order was restored and play could continue, their losing streak was extended to eighty games. Instead, both bands were suspended for the next two games.

4. Stanford University

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But not all marching band aggression is taken out in fisticuffs (Tubacuffs?) The kids in the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band know that more damage can be dealt by attacking the heart and mind of your opponent. Strictly speaking, the LSJUMB isn't a marching band at all; rather, it is an example of a scatter band. Rather than using precise drill to move the band between formations, scatter bands, well, scatter between sets. In addition, a scatter band's show tends to be of a more satirical nature than your average marching ensemble. And of course, sometimes the jokes can get out of hand.

For example, consider Stanford's 1991 show at Notre Dame. Preceding halftime, the LSJUMB drum major was dressed like an Orthodox Jew. Kindly, he changed attire before their halftime show"¦and took the field dressed in a nun's habit. Apparently the Fighting Irish took offense to the use of a wooden cross as a conductor's baton; Stanford's band has been banned from Notre Dame's campus ever since. LSJUMB apologized in 1997 by dedicating another show to Notre Dame, "These Irish, Why Must They Fight?" The Catholic Church isn't the only group to be targeted by LSJUMB - their show during a game against Brigham Young University featured their drum major being betrothed to a member of their dance team, followed soon by the other four members. LSJUMB was suspended for unrelated hijinks off the field in 2006, helping them to embody the title of their 2004 album, This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things.

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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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