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14 Bizarre College Donations and the Strings Attached

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For most of us, college donations entail little more than occasionally dropping a small check in the mail after receiving repeated pleas for cash from our alma maters. Some people, though, tend to be a bit more individualistic with their generosity. Let's take a look at some of the quirkier donations schools have received.

1. Bequest Puts Jocks on the Ropes

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In 1907, fledgling Swarthmore College received a bequest that was estimated to be worth somewhere between $1 and $3 million. If the school wanted the cash, though, it would have to stop participating in intercollegiate sports. Swarthmore badly needed the cash—its entire endowment was only in the $1 million range—but in the end, the school turned down the gift and the sports survived.

2. Ivy League Has to Produce Homemakers

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When former Massachusetts Attorney General A.E. Pillsbury gave Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia $25,000 apiece in his 1931 will, he had a catch in mind: The schools had to use the bequests to combat the feminist movement that had "already begun to impair the family as the basis of civilization and its advance." Pillsbury envisioned the schools creating a lectureship that could help keep women in the home.

3. Donor Wants Flowers in Perpetuity

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For years, Indiana University offered a scholarship with a strange condition: The recipient was supposed to drive from Bloomington to Indianapolis once a year to put flowers on the donor's grave. The school gradually decided it was a bit much to ask a student to take a roadtrip to a stranger's headstone, though, so for 20 years it didn't enforce the requirement. Eventually the donor's attorney found out that the flowers weren't being placed, but instead of being indignant he worked with the school to remove the clause from the bequest.

4. Auburn Goes to the Dogs

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When Miss Eleanor Elizabeth Ritchey, granddaughter of the founder of the Quaker State Oil Refining Company, died in 1968, she left Auburn University a generous gift of $2.5 million. She also gave the school something a bit more unusual: the responsibility for 150 dogs. Ritchey, who owned a ranch in Florida and loved to adopt homeless dogs, made the large cash donation contingent on the school finding good homes for all 150 of her dogs. The cash was then earmarked for veterinary research.

5. Mystery Donor Opens a Giant Wallet

In 2009, colleges experienced an unprecedented rash of anonymous generosity. Colleges of all sizes around the country received letters from lawyers informing them of seven-figure anonymous donations. The only catch was that the donor wished to stay anonymous, and in some cases the giver required that the colleges sign a contract agreeing not to investigate the benefactor's identity. The donations, which ranged from $1 million all the way up to $10 million, all went to schools that had female heads. Beyond that, though, the donor's identity and motives remained a mystery, even though he or she donated over $70 million.

6. Bryn Mawr Goes on the Clock

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Did Bryn Mawr need any new clocks in 1957? It didn't matter. They were getting one. Philadelphia physician Florence Chapman Child left the school $50,000 in her will if they would also agree to take her 150-year-old grandfather clock. The doctor stipulated that the school's administrators had to "install it in an appropriate place, keep it in proper condition and repair, make no changes in the fundamental appearance, and are not to have it electrified."

7. Small Potatoes Lead to Big Cash

In 1950, the government had a surplus of potatoes and started looking for ways to get rid of the excess tubers. The Department of Agriculture decided to give the potatoes to Hiwassee College, a small Methodist school in eastern Tennessee. College president D.R. Youell told the government that he didn't want its charity, though. A short time later, the school received a $10,000 donation with a note praising the institution for taking a stand against "the dangerous trends toward socialism in our Government."

8. Three Colleges' Ship Comes In

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In 2006, famed shipbuilder and philanthropist Luther Blount was feeling generous, and he decided to stick with what he knew when making his donation. He gave Rhode Island College, the Wentworth Institute of Technology, and Roger Williams University a ship to share. The 175-foot cruise ship, The Niagara Prince, was part of one of Blount's cruise lines. The idea was that the three schools—all of which had given Blount an honorary doctorate—would sell the boat and divvy up the proceeds.

9. Colleges Find a Fountainhead of Cash

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In 2008, Marshall University received a $1 million gift to establish the BB&T Center for the Advancement of American Capitalism. The catch was that the school had to agree to teach Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged as part of its curriculum. BB&T executives said the requirement was designed to spark debate on the ethical underpinnings of capitalism.

This wasn't the first time BB&T had made this sort of gift, either. In 2005, it gave the University of North Carolina Charlotte another million big ones to make Atlas Shrugged required reading for its students.

10. College Profits From a Racist Will

When Dr. Jesse C. Coggins died in 1962, he left his estate to the Keswick nursing home so it could construct a new building. Coggins made a last-minute change to the will, though, that stipulated that the building would only house white patients. In 1999, a court ruled that the racist stipulation effectively voided the gift and gave the entire estate—which had grown to $28.8 million—to the will's backup beneficiary, the University of Maryland Medical Center.

11. Donor Affects Fashion from Beyond the Grave

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Radcliffe once received a piece of jewelry as a bequest. A nice gift, to be sure, but the late donor was a bit bossy. She wasn't just donating the piece of jewelry; she stipulated in the gift that the president of Radcliffe must wear the accessory.

12. Small College Enters the Scientific Instrument Business

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By the time Erick O. Schonstedt died in 1993, he had built his 40-year-old business, the Schonstedt Instrument Company, into a $6-million-a-year enterprise. There was a problem, though. If he wanted to leave the business to a relative or an employee, the estate taxes would have been nearly $3 million. None of his prospective heirs had that sort of loot on hand. Schonstedt, a University of Minnesota alum, got creative. He gave the company to Augustana College, a school that, like Schonstedt, had Swedish Lutheran affiliations.

Rather than simply turning around and flipping the business for cash, though, Augustana decided to run it. The school instituted new sales models, found cost savings, and changed the company's product mix, and after two years was exceeding profit targets by 25 percent.

In 2008, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State received a similar gift; a donor left the school controlling interest in a company he had started to raise sturgeon for caviar in North Carolina.

13. A Different Kind of Monument

Back in 2008, Katie Kelly covered an interesting donation here on mental_floss:


"Endowing a school, building, or even a classroom with one's name is a pretty typical fundraising practice among universities today. Demanding a bathroom to commemorate yourself isn't quite as commonplace. Brad Feld, a local venture capitalist, donated $25,000 to the University of Colorado on the condition that a plaque would be placed on the door of a second-floor men's restroom in one of the campus' technology centers. He originally made the conditional offer to his alma mater, MIT, but was rejected. Feld, in an interview with Boulder's Daily Camera, stated: 'I just wanted a plaque outside of the men's room to inspire people as they walk in to do their business.' Quite fittingly, the quote reads, 'The best ideas often come at inconvenient times—don't ever close your mind to them.'

14. School Doesn't Say "Danke Schoen" to Wayne Newton

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In 1993, Wayne Newton made his first appearance in Branson, MO. He offered to give his cut of the first night's show to the nearby Presbyterian school College of the Ozarks. It was a pretty generous gift; Newton's take would have ended up being $15,000 to $25,000.

Unfortunately, the school's president, Jerry Davis, went to see Newton's set. He was horrified by Newton's double entendres and jokes about the elderly having sex. The next day Davis announced that the school wouldn't accept a cent of Newton's money.

This story originally ran in 2010.

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.