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6 College Perks That Might Make You Jealous

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College admissions are competitive, and not just from the student's side. Sure, sometimes it's hard to get into the college of your choice, but the schools are fighting just as hard to lure in top applicants. While some colleges boast about class sizes, graduate fellowships, and endowment growth rates, this sort of info is likely to bore the 17-year-old students they're wooing. Instead, some schools try to come up with unique perks that appeal to students, often in the form of free services.

While the cost of these "free" perks is undoubtedly built back into tuition bills, when a family's spending upwards of $40,000 a year for school, it can't hurt to help them feel like they're getting something for nothing. Here are a few you might be jealous of:

1. Free Laundry

Nothing's more maddening for a college student than wanting to study, party, or sleep, only to be confronted with a massive mound of laundry. Most of us know that if left unchecked, these piles of dirty clothes can grow until they're on the brink of becoming sentient beings, but students at Davidson, an elite liberal arts college in North Carolina, don't have to worry about it. Their college does the laundry for them.


Since 1919, Davidson has been operating a laundry facility that allows students to drop off their laundry and pick it up once its clean and smelling of dryer sheets. At the Lula Bell Houston Laundry, students' dress shirts and blouses are even pressed and put on hangers for them. The laundry clears about six tons' worth of dirty clothes and linens a week, but if students prefer to keep their filthy t-shirts to themselves, the school also offers free self-service washers and dryers in the dorms.

As if that's not enough, Davidson was even more generous when its basketball team made a miraculous run to the NCAA's Sweet 16 last March. The school shelled out the cash for free bus transport to the venue in Detroit, two nights' lodging, and a free ticket to the game for any student who wanted to go cheer on their Cinderella in person.

2. Free Skiing

Michigan Technological University offers a pretty standard slate of majors for its students, but it also has a real estate holding that might lure in applicants. The school owns Mont Ripley, a ski slope on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. While normal lift-ticket prices run at around $35 a day, Michigan Tech students can hit the slopes without dropping a dime.

3. Free Computers

At my undergrad alma mater, Wake Forest, one of the chief perks is that when you showed up for freshman orientation, the school gives you a fully loaded IBM Thinkpad and a printer. Students keep this laptop for two years, then trade it in for a new model before their junior year. Students then take this one with them when they graduate.

While there was a downside to the system (if profs know everyone has a laptop, they're not the least bit shy about making you tote it to class), it really upped the on-campus computing efficiency. Any program you needed for a class was already loaded on the laptop, and since everyone on campus was operating one of only two types of machines, tech support could diagnose problems and fix them really quickly.

4. Free Theater Tickets

Nothing irks actors and theater owners quite so much as playing to an empty house, so if tickets are moving slowly, why not fill the seats with college students? NYU's Ticket Central can wrangle Broadway and Off-Broadway tickets for up to 75% off their face values, but sometimes, the school can get lucky students into theaters for free to help fill otherwise thin crowds. Ticket Central also boasts that it can get students into Knicks games for as little as $12 and into Mets games for just $3. Of course, the way those teams have played in the last year or so, that offer might scare off more prospective students than it entices.

5. Personalized Birthday Cakes

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College birthdays are often all sorts of debauched fun, but at least in my experience, they were often sorely lacking in quality cake. Sure, sometimes you'd get a pan full of Betty Crocker-ed good intentions cooked in a dorm oven, which are precisely calibrated to burn cakes' edges while leaving the center liquid, but it was rare to see a real birthday cake. Ohio University's dining services can fix that, though, by allowing students' parents to join the Birthday Club. For $18, parents can make sure their kid gets a personalize birthday cake and all of the plates, napkins, and forks they'll need to share it with their friends. [Note: The cake pictured above is not the work of Ohio University's dining services. It's from Cake Wrecks, with this caption: "Here we have a beautifully done blue horse. Unfortunately, it was supposed to be a blue house."]

6. Cheap Golf

College students who want to golf on a tight budget often have to resign themselves to finding the rattiest municipal course they can find and hoping they survive the ordeal. Students at Stanford, though, have access to the Stanford Golf Course, a legendary course that's hosted such greats as Tom Watson and Tiger Woods since it opened in 1930. Only students, alumni, faculty, and their guests can enjoy the course's picturesque views of San Francisco, and for guests the price is pretty steep, up to $110 a round. Students, though, get a great deal on greens fees; they can get in a full round for just $25.

What unique perks did your school offer?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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