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13 Incredibly Focused Graduate Programs

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Are you thinking of getting a graduate degree, but want something with a narrower focus than an MBA or a JD? Schools around the world offer all sorts of incredibly focused graduate degrees to students who are trying to break into very specific fields. Here's a look at a handful of programs you might not have known about.

1. The Beatles, Liverpool Hope University

Anyone can listen to the Beatles' records, but it takes a special kind of fan to pursue a master's degree in the Fab Four. Last March, Liverpool Hope University announced that during the 2009-10 academic year it would begin offering a first-of-its-kind masters degree in a field of study it dubbed "The Beatles, Popular Music, and Society." The program consists of two night classes per week for an academic year and focuses on everything from the band's songs to the influence of their fashion on youth culture. Really, the only way to top this degree would be to get a doctorate in Rolling Stones-ology.

2. Thanatology, Hood College

At first it may seem a bit odd that a person would want to get a Master of Arts in Thanatology, or the academic study of death, but Hood College offers the course of study to prepare students for work with terminally ill patients and the bereaved. Graduates of the program leave with a greater understanding of death and the grief process, which gives them a specific set of skills they can take to work in hospices, hospitals, or nursing homes.

3. Puppetry, University of Connecticut

If you're an aspiring puppeteer in search of a master's degree, you've got one choice: the University of Connecticut.

UConn has been offering classes in puppetry since 1964, and the school now says it's the only institution in the country that offers MA and MFA options for puppet arts. Courses like "DA 5601: Marionette Construction" would be sure to make you the envy of any friends slogging through more mundane coursework in their own grad programs.

4. Homeland Security, Fairleigh Dickinson University

Want to spruce up your resume for a job in homeland security? If you've got an Internet connection, you can earn a Master of Science in Homeland Security (MSHS) from Fairleigh Dickinson University. The degree requires 12 courses, including core classes like "Weapons of Mass Destruction/Terrorism Awareness."

5. Recreation Administration, California State University Long Beach

California State University Long Beach offers a Master of Science in Recreation Administration through its Department of Recreation & Leisure Studies. According to the program's website, it "helps prepare professional personnel who can contribute to the development of a philosophy of leisure" and "are competent managers of private and public agencies and programs."

6. Fire Protection Engineering, Worcester Polytechnic Institute


Yes, this one's a niche, but it's one we're all glad exists. Worcester Polytechnic Institute offers grad degrees in fire protection engineering that include coursework like "FPE 575: Explosion Protection" and "FPE 554: Advanced Fire Suppression."

7. Parapsychology, Coventry University

If you're interested in scientifically studying the existence of psychic abilities and life after death, England's Coventry University has just the program for you. According to the school, its distance-learning MSc in Parapsychology "provides a thorough empirical, theoretical and methodological introduction to the controversial field of parapsychology." Whether or not you believe in ESP, you've got to admit a course title like "Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis Research" sounds a lot more interesting than many graduate classes.

8. Anime, Tokyo University of the Arts

Tokyo University of the Arts offers a course of graduate study in anime that evaluates existing work while also challenging its students to create innovative new animations of their own.

9. Lighting Design, Parsons the New School for Design

Parsons the New School for Design claims that it offers the only architectural lighting program focused "primarily on design and social practice." Students learn about "the intellectual, aesthetic, and technical aspects of lighting" in order to design better-lit spaces.

10. Gastronomy, Boston University

Boston University offers a multidisciplinary Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy that offers students a chance to study "the role of food in historical and contemporary societies from a variety of perspectives." The program draws from arts, humanities, and social science departments to help students flesh out their understanding of foods. If you love food, this sentence from the program's website has to make your mouth water a bit: "The program offers special emphasis on experiential learning through hands-on culinary arts laboratories and wine studies courses."

11. Wood & Paper Science, North Carolina State

North Carolina State University's College of Natural Resources offers a variety of masters and doctoral programs through its Department of Wood & Paper Science. According to the program's website, students' coursework can included classes on such specific topics as wood-moisture relations and lumber drying, paper physics, and wood tool design, performance, and wear.

12. Sequential Art, Savannah College of Art and Design

Savannah College of Art and Design offers students the chance to get their MFA in sequential art. What exactly is sequential art, though? It includes comic books, graphic novels, storyboards, and children's books. The program gives students the chance to take some pretty specific coursework, including electives on Manga and superhero comics, comic strips, and advanced writing for comics.

13. Appalachian Studies, Appalachian State

Appalachian State University offers masters degrees through its Centers for Appalachian Studies. Students in the interdisciplinary program can concentrate on Appalachian culture, sustainable development, or Appalachian music. The program also offers students a chance to study abroad in Wales for a comparative analysis of Wales and Appalachia, including a look at Welsh migration patterns to Appalachia.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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