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5 Rules from my Semester at America's Holiest University

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Picture 32.pngWe're so excited to have author, journalist, and Brown University senior (he's still a senior!) Kevin Roose blogging with us this week. His new book, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University is about the semester he spent at Liberty University, the late Jerry Falwell's college for young evangelicals. Kevin's book is engaging, thoughtful and just a delight to read. If you like what you see, be sure to order a copy. We'll let Kevin take it from here:


For starters, I thought I'd list the five strangest rules I encountered at Liberty.  Per the unofficial school nickname ("Bible Boot Camp"), Liberty is a very strict place.  It has a 46-page code of conduct, called "The Liberty Way," that outlines punishments and monetary fines for specific behaviors.  And coming from Brown, where "“ by Falwellian standards "“ the social scene is a notch or two above Sodom and Gomorrah, I had a lot of adjusting to do.

1) No Sex, Kissing or... Extended Hugging!

Liberty is one of the few universities where the football players have exactly as much sex as the engineers. By University code, all romantic contact beyond hand-holding is prohibited. Hugs are allowed, but only for a three-second maximum. (There used to be a Facebook group poking fun at this rule called, "I Hug for 3 Seconds, Sometimes 4.") And some students are actually saving their first kiss for their wedding night. It's no wonder that Liberty charges any student who spends the night with a person of the opposite sex with 30-reprimands.

But I learned that in terms of rules against inter-gender socializing, Liberty isn't even close to the strictest school in America. At Pensacola Christian College, for example, all physical contact between members of the opposite sex "“ even hand-shaking "“ is forbidden. According to one website run by ex-PCC students, "even couples who are not talking or touching can be reprimanded for what is known on the campus as "˜optical intercourse' "“ staring too intently into the eyes of a member of the opposite sex. This is also referred to as "˜making eye babies.'"

2) No Cursing (or How I Learned to Tame my Tongue)

This was probably the hardest part of my first month at Liberty.  Like most secular students, I used to curse mindlessly and liberally, almost as a way of life.  But "The Liberty Way" makes it clear that "obscene, profane or abusive language" gets you "12-18 Reprimands + Corresponding Fine." So I had to be proactive about cleaning up my language. I even bought a Christian self-help book called "30 Days to Taming Your Tongue," which tells you to replace your basic four-letter words with words like "Glory!"

While the book helped me avoid reprimands, sounding like Beaver Cleaver didn't exactly help me fit in. Although its true that most Liberty students don't curse, they don't walk around saying "Good Heavens!" Instead, they use Nerf curses like "Darn", "Friggin'" and "Crap."

3) No R-rated movies

This rule, too, proved difficult to follow. I like a raunchy Judd Apatow comedy as much as the next guy, but at Liberty, anyone found watching an R-rated movie is given 12 reprimands and a $50 fine. (For perspective, students can be expelled for accumulating as few as 30 reprimands.) On one ill-fated night, the RA on my hall walked in on a roomful of guys huddled around a TV, watching "300," the R-rated war flick about the Spartan army. The seven guys racked up 84 reprimands, they were fined a combined $350, and the DVD was confiscated.  Luckily, like a good Christian, I was at a Bible study group when the bust went down.

4) No Demonstrations

According to "The Liberty Way," any student found guilty of "participation in an unauthorized petition or demonstration" earns 12 reprimands and a $50 fine. Which begs the question: If you think a rule against protesting is unfair, how are you supposed to show it?

5) No Dancing

Baptists are notoriously opposed to bumpin' and grindin'. (Hence the old joke: "Why don't Baptists have sex standing up? Because it might lead to dancing.") At Liberty, 6 reprimands and a $25 fine awaits anyone found to have attended a dance. Or awaited, anyway. I've heard from friends that in the two years since I attended Liberty, the official dancing policy has been loosened. Organized dancing (salsa lessons, ballroom competitions, etc.) is now allowed, while "social dancing" remains off-limits. I'm not sure, but I'm guessing that the "Crank Dat Soulja Boy" dance is still a no-go.

Kevin Roose's excellent book The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University goes on sale nationally next week, but that shouldn't stop you from pre-ordering it today! Be sure to come back tomorrow to read more from Kevin.

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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]