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10 Unusual College Scholarships for 2010

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Much like Alice (of Wonderland fame), the cost of higher education continues to grow and grow and grow. Luckily there is financial help available, and not just for the best students—you just have to know where to look.

1. Meat-Eating Orators

If the idea of public speaking makes you break out in a flop sweat, skip this paragraph. However, if you've got a flair for presentation and you're not a vegetarian, you might want to look into the National Beef Ambassador Program—"a national, competitive youth public speaking program for the beef industry." Each year five winners each get a $1,000 cash prize, a $750 scholarship, and the opportunity to travel across the U.S.

2. Outspoken Vegetarians

If you are a vegetarian, however, there's cash out there for you, too. The Vegetarian Resource Group offers two $5,000 scholarships annually to graduating high school seniors who not only abstain from eating meat, fish and fowl, but also who actively promote vegetarianism in their school or community. Of course, it's not as easy as simply filling out an application—you'll also have to write a compelling essay detailing the whys and wherefores of your anti-steak stance.

3. Ayn Rand Enthusiasts

Is your copy of Atlas Shrugged thoroughly dog-eared? Do your friends run screaming when you attempt to debate objectivism versus existentialism? If you're a high school junior or senior and a budding philosopher, you could win up to $10,000 from the Ayn Rand Institute in their annual Fountainhead essay contest. You can even submit your entry via an online form, in case you wait until the last minute to meet the April 26, 2010 deadline.

4. Caddies

Have you ever worked as a caddy? More specifically, have you caddied for two years and would you be willing to continue to work as one during your summer break once you're in college? Over 200 students annually who meet the qualifications receive tuition and housing grants from the Evans Scholars Foundation.

5. Tall People

Are you 5'10" or taller but not athletically inclined enough to win a basketball scholarship? It may be worth your while to check out the Tall Clubs International website to see if you qualify for one of their $1,000 scholarships. They do have some fairly stringent requirements, one of which involves being recommended by a TCI member, so now is the time to cultivate some tall friendships.


6. Short People

On the other end of the height scale, college-bound students who have been diagnosed with some form of dwarfism may be eligible for a $1,000 award from the Billy Barty Foundation.

7. Future Welders of America

According to this recent article in the Wall Street Journal, even though manufacturing jobs are decreasing in the United States, some specifically skilled tradespeople like welders are in high demand and short supply. If carrying a torch interests you, check out the financial aid program offered by the American Welding Society, which includes tuition, books and supplies.

8. Schizophrenics

Certainly most high school seniors are concerned about their future, but how much more worrying are your possibilities if you suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder? There is assistance for post-secondary education available for mental health patients, as long as you're under proper medical care and adhering to your doctor's advice. The Lilly Reintegration Scholarship Program offers financial help for tuition, books and lab fees for qualified applicants.

9. Budding Writers Considering Ursinus College

Are you an aspiring writer planning to attend Ursinus College? Have you never heard of Ursinus College but would be willing to enroll if offered a four-year, $30,000 scholarship? The administrators of the Creative Writing Award (formerly the J.D. Salinger Scholarship Award) realize that the best writers are not always the best scholars, and that SAT scores aren't the be-all, end-all. The winner of this prestigious, renewable scholarship also gets the bonus of lodging in Salinger's third floor room in Curtis Hall.

10. The Michael Scotts of Tomorrow

Most of us don't realize the many roles paper products play in our daily lives. From newspapers to packing cartons to pizza boxes to facial tissue to envelopes, pulp is much more than paperback fiction. The Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry offers the annual William L. Cullison Scholarship worth up to $4,000 to students planning to attend an accredited school to major in some form of paper curriculum.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]