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6 College Pranks We Wish We'd Thought Of

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What is it about the collegiate atmosphere that inspires pranks? Maybe it's the lure of becoming a school legend, your hilarious exploits recounted 'round bonfires for years to come. Or maybe it's just the natural result of putting too many smart, hormone-addled young folk together in one place. Whatever the reason, colleges (and to a lesser extent, boarding schools) are a breeding ground for awe-inspiring pranks -- and here are some of our favorites. (Some of these entries appeared in the Mental_floss article "History's Greatest Hoaxes" by Alex Boese, vol. 2, issue 6.)

1. The Explosives Were Just A Warm-Up

Alright, this is a high school prank, but it has all the hallmarks of a collegiate job (think of it as AP pranksterhood). Our very own John Green masterminded this elaborate, hilarious two-parter as a senior at his Alabama boarding school, and not only did it make he and his cohorts living legends at Indian Springs High School for years to come, it also became the basis for several major plot points in John's debut novel, Looking for Alaska (soon to be a movie). Warning: some crude (but contextually appropriate) language.

2. Bonsai Kittens

"You no longer need be satisfied with a house pet having the same mundane shape as all other members of its species," declared the website, which debuted in 2000. "With Bonsai Kitten a world of variation awaits you, limited only by your own imagination." According to the website, you could treat a young kitten in much the same way that you treat a young juniper: by sealing a furry friend inside a specially-designed glass jar, you could force Fluffy's still-pliable bones to conform to the jar's shape. Special feeding tubes supposedly took care of all kitty's nature-related needs (just make sure you drill an air hole!), and with a little careful pruning now and then, the rest would take care of itself!

Of course, the website was total hokum, devised by a group of bored MIT students and housed on the school's servers. Even after the site was found to be of questionably authentic origin, however (it proved to be impossible to actually purchase said Bonsai Kittens), outraged emails kept pouring in. The Humane Society and PETA both denounced the site publicly, and in 2001 the FBI subpoenaed all information about the site they could get from MIT. No evidence of abuse was ever found, but even after had been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked as a prank, vitriolic emails from outraged animal lovers forced it site to bounce around from hosting service to hosting service for several years.

3. Lady Liberty Goes for a Swim

In February 1979, the Statue of Liberty appears submerged in the waters of Wisconsin's Lake Mendota. It's the brainchild of the infamous Pail & Shovel Party, a small group of (mischief-prone) undergrads running the University of Wisconsin at Madison's student government that year. As part of their election campaign, they had promised to bring Lady Liberty to Wisconsin, which they do ... sort of. The group spends three days constructing the statue of of papier-mache and chicken wire. When it appears peeking up from the lake, they claim it was flown in by helicopter from NYC, but after the rope snapped, it sent her crashing through the ice. So did they make their fellow students proud? Not exactly. The P&S party used $4,500 of student funds for the construction.

4. Hugo N. Frye, Father of the Republican Party

Hoping to make a statement about the superficiality of politicians, a pair of Cornell students in 1930 make special plans to honor one Hugo Norris Frye, father of the Republican party, at the school's annual banquet. Problem is, he doesn't exist. ("You go and fry" -- get it?) They print up letterhead for the H.N. Frye Sesquicentennial Committee and mail letters to many notable Republicans, asking that they issue statements honoring the important, if little-known, patriot on the occasion of his 150th birthday. In response, they receive several letters of glowing praise for Frye -- including one from the Vice President of the United States, Charles Curtis -- which they read aloud to an amused crowd at their banquet. It would have been harmless enough, but when the story landed on the front page of The New York World, the victims were exposed -- and they weren't laughing.

5. Greasing the Tracks

The night before an 1896 football game with their arch-rival Georgia Tech, a group of Auburn students set out for the local train station. To greet the arriving Tech team, the Auburn kids decide to do a particularly impressive job of the old "greasing the tracks" prank, covering the rails around the station and well down the line heading out of town. When the Tech train rolls in the next morning, it can't stop and reportedly slides for 10 miles, leaving the team an its accompanying fans well outside their intended destination. Forced to walk into town for the game, the players are so exhausted when they finally reach the field, Tech loses 45 to nothing.

6. The Crimson Sparks a Red Scare

A long-running rivalry between Harvard's school papers, the Crimson and the Lampoon, came to a head with this 1953 prank. Crimson staffers play one of their favorite pranks by stealing the Lampoon's Ibis, the large bird statue perched on top of their office. But this time, they send a letter to the Soviet consul in New York to report that the editors of the Lampoon wish to offer the Ibis as a symbol of friendship, billing the bird as "sort of an American peace dove." The Soviets accept, and the Ibis is handed off to a confused U.N. delegate in a formal ceremony. Not wanting to be outdone, the Lampoon retaliates with a letter of their own. With help from then-editor John Updike, they write to Joseph McCarthy, insisting the prank clearly proves the Crimson's communist leanings and calling for a full investigation.

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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]