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The mental_floss Guide to the NCAAs: The South

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We may not be much help in filling out your bracket. But throughout this week we're going to bring you a _flossy take on March Madness: one interesting fact about each of the 65 teams in the tournament field. Let's kick things off with the South region.

(1) Duke can boast of many notable alumni in politics, from former senator Elizabeth Dole to med school grad Ron Paul. But the school hasn't been great to its most famous alum. In 1954, a committee recommended that then-VP Richard Nixon, a 1937 School of Law graduate, be given an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, and Nixon agreed to be the graduation speaker. However, after vociferous debate, a faculty panel voted down the recommendation, and Nixon bailed on the commencement address.

Over a quarter-century later, Duke President Terry Sanford pushed to build Nixon's presidential library on campus, even meeting with Nixon himself to work out the details. However, a similar faculty committee killed the idea. The Nixon Library ended up in Yorba Linda, California.

(16a) Winthrop shows that you don't have to dish out millions to get your name on a college. The school got its start as a teachers' college in the 1880s and is named after Robert C. Winthrop, a Massachusetts philanthropist and former Speaker of the House. The fledgling school needed some startup capital, so Winthrop floated the institution $1500. The school's administration was so grateful that it named the whole place after him.

Interesting side note about Winthrop: he was also John Kerry's great-great-grandfather.

(16b) Arkansas Pine Bluff is playing in its first NCAA tournament, but the school has a long and storied history as a leader in a somewhat less publicized field: aquaculture, or the study of how to farm freshwater and saltwater fish and other organisms.

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(8) California may look sharp in its blue-and-gold uniforms, but did you know they swiped one of the colors from another school? The particular dark blue that the Golden Bears sport is officially known as Yale Blue, since the Ivy League university has used it for over a century. How did Cal end up with Yale's color? According to the school's website, most of the university's founders were Yale men who had made their way west. Cal wasn't the only school to bogart the hue, either; Yale blue was Duke's official color until the 1960s.

(9) Louisville contains at least one sight that art lovers can't miss: one of the original monumental size bronze casts of Rodin's The Thinker. U of L's version of the sculpture sits outside of Grawemeyer Hall and is actually the very first bronze cast of The Thinker that Rodin made. The cast itself dates back to 1903, but it's been at its current spot on Louisville's campus since 1949.
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(5) Texas A&M's fans are known to yell "Gig "˜em" as a rallying cry, but why do they do it? The tradition supposedly started before a 1906 football game against Texas Christian University. A student yell leader said that the Aggies were going to "gig" the Horned Frogs, and the phrase "Gig "˜em" with a thumbs-up gesture quickly became utah-statepopular on campus.


(12) Utah State has a fun rite of passage: to become a "True Aggie," you have to smooch someone who is already a True Aggie under the moonlight. This tongue play is particularly prevalent during the school's Homecoming dance, which is how the school was once briefly a world record holder for "Most Couples Kissing At the Same Place at the Same Time" until a group of Canadians broke the record six months later.
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(4) Purdue is a tremendous college choice if you're an aspiring astronaut. The school has been called "the Cradle of Spaceflight" and has cranked out 22 astronauts who have been chosen for space flight, including big names like Neil Armstrong and Gus Grissom.

(13) Siena actually played part of the 1988-89 season without a mascot. The previous team name, the Indians, got the heave-ho for being culturally insensitive, but when the school couldn't settle on a new mascot, the team took the court without one. They also frequently took the court without any fans. Siena suffered from an outbreak of measles during that season, and thanks to quarantines the school played nine straight games in an empty arena.
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notre-dame(6) Notre Dame may be a familiar name to sports fans, but did you know that it's not the school's full name? The school's official charter refers to it as "University of Notre Dame du Lac," which translates to "University of Our Lady of the Lake."


(11) Old Dominion takes its name from its home state of Virginia's "Old Dominion" nickname. Where does that nickname originate, though? The English Civil War, of course. Virginia remained loyal to the monarchy during the conflict, so when King Charles II came into power during the Restoration in 1660, he wanted to show his gratitude to the Virginians. Charles II conferred the title "Dominion" on the colony, and the nickname stuck. Knowing this origin makes the school's athletic mascot, the Monarchs, make a bit more sense, too.
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Like most schools, (3) Baylor has a ceremonial mace that's carried during official events. Baylor's mace has a cool story, though. Its main element is a sword that Cyrus Alexander Baylor, brother of university founder R.E.B. Baylor, received for bravery during the War of 1812. The sword was a gift to Baylor from none other than General Andrew Jackson. A cane that belonged to Sam Houston is also part of the mace, which makes the Bears' first-round matchup against Sam Houston State a bit more interesting.

(14) Sam Houston State was the first "“- and according to the school, possibly the only "“- college ever to start a branch campus in an old prisoner-of-war camp. Throughout World War II, the government housed 5,000 German POWs in Huntsville, TX, and after the war, SHSU bought the abandoned camp for $1. (Pretty sweet deal: the camp was 861 acres and included over 400 buildings.) It then transformed the former prison camp into a campus with lodging for 2,000 students.
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(7) Richmond may be a great school, but it's got another claim to fame: it once hosted Dawson, Joey, and Pacey. Dawson's Creek filmed several episodes on the Spiders' campus, but the show never referred to the school by name. Instead, the scripts made vague allusions to it being a "beautiful Ivy League campus."

(10) Saint Mary's Gaels slipped into the tournament after bumping off Gonzaga last week, but what's a Gael? The Gaels are a group of people of Irish and Scottish descent who speak one of the Gaelic languages. According to the school's website, the term originally meant "raider," but gradually evolved to mean "Irish person." You've got to admit "the Gaels" is a bit catchier than "the Saint Mary's Irish People."
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(2) Villanova temporarily closed its doors in 1857 because of a shortage of priests that made staffing the Catholic school too difficult. An economic crisis coupled with the Civil War kept the university closed until 1865.

(15) Robert Morris may not be the biggest school, but it once had pro cheerleaders. When the Pittsburgh Steelers debuted their cheerleaders, the Steelerettes, in 1961, the squad was entirely composed of Robert Morris Junior College students. The Steelerettes cheered on the Steelers until 1970.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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