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11 Offbeat College Essay Topics

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Let's take a look at some of the stranger questions those wacky admissions officers have asked.

1. How do you feel about Wednesday? (University of Chicago, 2002)
This topic was inspired by a student. However, it was optional. Students did not have to share their thoughts on Wednesday if they did not feel comfortable doing so.

2. What outrages you? (Wake Forest, 2009)
For most students? Questions like this one. We think admissions officers are looking for a particular answer, like "genocide." Wake Forest claims they just want to know the real you, but honestly, they're just being obnoxious.

3. Write a haiku, limerick, or short poem that best represents you. (NYU, 2009)
Oh please, NYU
College essays are stressful
Don't make me do this.

4. In the year 2050, a movie is being made of your life. Please tell us the name of your movie and briefly summarize the story line. (NYU, 2009)
College admissions officers like to throw in "fun" questions like this to relieve a bit of the stress high school seniors face while applying to college. I don't think it's working.

5. Are we alone? (Tufts, 2009)
This question is one of several options for prospective Tufts students this year. I'm wondering how most people will interpret this one—I immediately thought of extraterrestrial life. In any case, I'm betting most students will pick a more generic essay that involves less thinking.

6. What is college for? (Hampshire College, 2009)
Small liberal arts colleges like to pose deceptively simple questions like this one. I'd probably come up with something cheesy about forming close personal bonds and broadening myself intellectually.

7. Please describe a daily routine or tradition of yours that may seem ordinary to others but holds special meaning for you. Why is this practice significant to you? (Barnard, 2009)
Yet another essay that lets you sneakily show how unique you are. Colleges want students to really open up, but I wonder how many essays like these have fabricated answers of what the students think will sound good, not reality.

8. Make a bold prediction about something in the year 2020 that no one else has made a bold prediction about. (University of Virginia, 1999)
UVa is another college that offers several interesting optional essays each year. Colleges claim they truly are optional and you won't be penalized for not doing them"¦

9. Write a short story using one of the following titles: a.) House of Cards, b.)The Poor Sport, c.) Drama at the Prom, d.) Election Night, 2044, e.) The Getaway. (Tufts, 2009)
This is an unusual essay, as it's asking for something fictional. But I'd imagine any prospective creative writing majors would be quite happy to pen a short story rather than a revealing nonfiction essay.

10. How did you get caught? (Or not caught, as the case may be.) (Chicago, 2009)
I had to include another UChicago one—they're just so odd. This one is also inspired by a student (I'm curious to know the source of the inspiration.) This university likes to use offbeat questions because it draws in a different kind of student—a bit eclectic and intellectual—which is just what Chicago is looking for.

11. You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit Page 217. (UPenn, 2009)
This topic was popularized by UPenn in the '80s, and many other colleges have adopted it since. I read one (possibly apocryphal) anecdote about a father who called an admissions officer to ask if his son could send his essay in late, as he wouldn't have time to finish his 300 page autobiography before deadline.
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Do you know of any other interesting essay topics? Tell us about them in the comments!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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