Original image

The mental_floss Guide to the NCAAs: The West

Original image

Yesterday we took a look at some interesting facts about the schools in the NCAA tournament's South region. Today, let's turn our sights to the West.

(1) Syracuse got its start as Genessee Wesleyan Seminary in Lima, NY. The school only moved to Syracuse in 1870 after the city had made a concerted effort to lure a college to town and whiffed on getting Cornell to choose it over Ithaca, NY.

(16) Vermont has a couple of interesting claims to fame. It was the first American university to publicly declare its support for freedom of religion, and its charter explicitly states that the school's "rules, regulations, and by-laws shall not tend to give preference to any religious sect or denomination whatsoever." Additionally, in the 1870s it became the first university to admit women and African Americans into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.
* * * * * *
(8) Gonzaga has been known to make some noise in the tournament, but where did the Jesuit school in Spokane, Washington, get its unusual name?

From a Jesuit saint. Saint Aloysius Gonzaga was an Italian Jesuit who worked with plague victims in the late 16th century and had a vision in which the Archangel Gabriel told him he would die within one year. Sadly, the vision proved to be true, as Aloysius came down with the plague and FSU-circusdied when he was just 23 years old.

(9) Florida State is one of only two schools in the country to have its own circus. (Illinois State is the other.) The FSU Flying High Circus has been around since 1947 and offers FSU students a chance to perform under a three-ring big top. The school offers a one-credit class "Introduction to Circus," and performers practice their acts each day in anticipation of a big show each spring.
* * * * * *
(5) Butler may have gotten to hear Kurt Vonnegut's swan song. The college invited Vonnegut to give a lecture in 2007, and while the author wrote his talk, he died before the scheduled speech. His son Mark read the lecture in Vonnegut's place; there's a real possibility that the talk is the last thing Vonnegut ever wrote.

(12) UTEP must have a nice weight room, because it produced one of the sports world's most famous sets of giant biceps. NFL referee Ed Hochuli attended the school from 1969 to 1972; he played linebacker for the Miners' football team.

If muscle-bound zebras don't get you excited, then the school's Asian-influenced architecture might. Many of the school's buildings are designed in a style that's more commonly associated with Bhutanese monasteries and fortresses. This unique stylistic choice came about after a 1916 fire destroyed most of the school. Dean Steven Worrell's wife remembered a National Geographic feature about Bhutan's "Castles in the Air," and she suggested the style be used throughout the rebuilt campus.
* * * * * *
(4) Vanderbilt's teams may be the Commodores, but the name is a bit of a misnomer. The school is named after shipping magnate/robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was known by the naval title "Commodore Vanderbilt" during his life. He was never an actual commodore, though. In fact, he was never even in the Navy. People just started calling Vanderbilt "Commodore" in the 1840s because he owned a lot of steamships, and the nickname stuck.

(13) Murray State is an unlikely hotbed of college football coaching. The Kentucky school provided early head coaching jobs for Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer and Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt. Illinois head coach Ron Zook and Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen both served as assistants for the Racers.
* * * * * *
xavier-chapel(6) Xavier has at least one cool-sounding architectural element on its campus. Bellarmine Chapel has a 122-foot roof that's shaped in the form of a hyperbolic paraboloid, better known as a "saddle roof." Due to the unique shape, the chapel's walls don't support any of the roof's weight, so the roof would remain standing even if the walls were removed.

(11) Minnesota's teams call themselves the Golden Gophers, but they could have been the Doughboys. Baked goods mogul John Sargent Pillsbury helped the school get off the ground after the Civil War by giving it a hefty loan to cover its operating costs. Minnesota still honors Pillsbury as "the Father of the University."
* * * * * *
Sick of bland academic buildings? Head to (3) Pitt. The school's Cathedral of Learning stands an impressive 535 feet high, making it the tallest educational building in the Western Hemisphere. The limestone-clad Late Gothic Revival cathedral contains over 2000 rooms. Check out the view from the top on this webcam.

(14) Oakland University grads should probably buy Dodge cars. The Michigan school got its start in 1957 when Matilda Dodge Wilson, widow of Dodge Motors co-founder John Francis Dodge, left her sprawling 1,500-acre estate to Michigan State University. The university was founded as Michigan State University-Oakland, but by 1963 it was known as Oakland University. By 1970 it was completely independent of Michigan State.
* * * * * *
brigham-youngMale students at (7) Brigham Young can grow beards, but they'll need a doctor's note first. Not growing facial hair is part of the university's honor code "“- the code includes a grooming section "“- but the school isn't totally rigid about the rule. If a student has a skin condition that would be irritated by shaving, he can be examined by a physician and receive a "beard exception" that's good for one year. (Photo: Brigham Young.)

(10) Florida has at least one possession that sounds like it fell straight out of James Bond movie. In 2009 the school completed construction on the world's largest single-aperture telescope, which is nestled into a volcanic peak in the Canary Islands. The telescope, which was a joint project between the Spanish government, the University of Florida, and a Mexican university, cost over $130 million and took nearly 25 years to build.
* * * * * *
(2) Kansas State got one of its beloved fight songs, "The Wabash Cannonball," in an odd way. In 1968 the school's Nichols Hall burned down, destroying all of the marching band's sheet music. The only sheet music that survived was "The Wabash Cannonball," which band director Phil Hewett had taken home with him, and since the band was hard-up for tunes, they just played the song over and over again at a basketball game three days after the fire, and a new tradition was born.

(15) North Texas might have a tough time against Kansas State, but they can boogie with the best of them. The school's One O'Clock Lab Band was the first student band ever to get a Grammy nomination when its big band jazz records Lab '75 and Lab '76 received nods during the mid-1970s.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image

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]