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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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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]