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The mental_floss Guide to the NCAAs: The Midwest

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Let's keep our _flossy take on March Madness rolling with 16 facts you might not have known about the 16 schools who are dancing in the Midwest region.

(1) Kansas' "Rock Chalk, Jayhawk" chant has a pretty geeky origin. The university's science club decided in 1886 that it needed its own cheer and started a yell of "Rah Rah Jayhawk" that eventually morphed into "Rock Chalk, Jayhawk," possibly with an assist from the school's geology professors.


(16) Lehigh's athletic teams were known as the Engineers until 1995, and for good reason. Graduates from the school's highly regarded engineering program include Jesse Reno, who built the world's first working elevator in 1891, and Howard McClintic and Charles Marshall, who founded the company that built the locks for the Panama Canal. The school is now known as the Mountain Hawks.
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(8) UNLV is in Vegas, so is it any surprise that the school has a Center for Gaming Research? The "world-class hub for the analysis of gambling and gaming issues" even has its own podcast that you can download from iTunes.

Since 1968, (9) Northern Iowa has been home to one of America's oldest literary magazines. The North American Review was founded in Boston in 1815, and its editors and contributors have included such big names as John Adams, Daniel Webster, and Mark Twain. Even if the Panthers don't get a win this week, they'll at least have some good reading material.
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(5) Michigan State graduated its first class in 1861, but the graduates didn't get to don mortarboards and gowns. Instead, there was no graduation ceremony so the newly minted grads could quickly enlist in the Union Army.

(12) New Mexico State's first graduating class in 1893 was on the small side. More specifically, it was only one student. Samuel Steel was the lone graduate, and even he didn't get to enjoy commencement; he was shot and killed before graduation. (According to the school's website, things were still fairly Wild West on campus in those days.)
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maryland-SI(4) Maryland used to have an interesting form of freshman hazing. From the 1920s all the way through the 1960s, Maryland freshmen were required to wear beanies whenever they were on campus. The beanies, which were known as "rat caps" for men and "rabbit caps" for women, had to stay on freshmen domes until the annual spring semester tug-of-war between the freshman and sophomore classes. Another tourney-bound school, Kansas State, had a similar system for its freshmen where varsity athletes would paddle youngsters who forgot their beanies.


(13) Houston's school colors go way, way back. The scarlet red and albino white were actually the colors of Sam Houston's Scottish ancestor Sir Hugh. According to the school's website, the red stands for the spared blood of the royalty, while the white represents "the purity and perfections of the heart, mind and soul engaged in the effort to serve faithfully that which is by right and reason, justfully served."
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(6) Tennessee's famed fight song "Rocky Top" is actually younger than you might expect. Felice and Boudleaux Bryant penned the song in 1967, but the school's band didn't start playing it until the 1972 season. Once fans heard it, though, they fell in love with the tune and its rousing lyrics. The song ended up becoming so popular within the state that in 1982 it became one of Tennessee's official state songs.

(11) San Diego State might actually top Murray State (see yesterday's post) when it comes to the production of terrific football coaches. John Madden was once an Aztec assistant coach, and fellow Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs played and served as an assistant coach for the team as well. Former Chargers head coach Don Coryell and longtime offensive coordinator Ted Tollner were both Aztec head coaches. Former head coach Herman Edwards and Carolina Panthers head coach John Fox both suited up for the Aztecs, too.
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reagan-ewing-SI(3) Georgetown's team colors have a deeper symbolic meaning. In 1876, the school's crew team began wearing both blue (associated with the Union Army) and gray (associated with Confederate soldiers) to support "the feeling of unity between the Northern and Southern boys of the College."


(14) Ohio has a reputation for being the most haunted college campus in the country. The school is fairly old -- it was founded in 1804 -- and it's supposedly rife with ghosts. A couple of examples of the many hauntings on campus: a slave named Nicodemus allegedly haunts the old Alpha Omicron Pi sorority house, and a ghostly basketball team is said to inhabit Washington Hall. Some of these ghost worries also stem from the fact that the school bought the former Athens Lunatic Asylum and converted it into art studios, biotech research labs, and other academic uses.
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boone-pickens(7) Oklahoma State may not win the tournament, but they've already won the booster lottery. Billionaire financier T. Boone Pickens is an alum, and he's rabid in his support for the Cowboys. Pickens has given the school over $400 million in donations, including a $165 million gift to the athletic department in 2006 that was supposedly the largest donation in NCAA history. Of course, the school named its football stadium after Pickens out of gratitude for his generosity.


(10) Georgia Tech got its start as a trade school complete with its own foundry, which gave rise to one of the school's interesting traditions: a steam whistle that blows five minutes before the hour every hour from 7:55 a.m. to 5:55 p.m. The whistle was originally used to signal shift changes in the school's shops, and it now screams for the end of classes. It also blows whenever the football team scores a touchdown or wins a game.
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(2) Ohio State has produced so many Olympians -- including Jesse Owens -- that if you considered it to be its own nation, its athletes' 77 overall medals would make it the 31st most successful Olympic nation. (Note: That's before this year's Winter Games. Our medal count didn't include the five medals Buckeyes won in Vancouver.)

(15) UCSB was second only to Berkeley in both the volume and intensity of its anti-Vietnam protests during the 1960s and 70s. Angry students bombed the faculty club, burned down a local Bank of America branch, and generally turned the campus into a hotbed of mayhem. Things got so bad during the 1971-72 school year that California Governor Ronald Reagan had to impose a curfew of 7 p.m.. Six hundred National Guardsmen were deployed to campus to enforce the curfew.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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