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The Stories Behind Graduation Traditions

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This is a big weekend for college graduations. As you listen to a school administrator read names from a seemingly endless list of graduates, you might have some questions about how this whole tradition got started. Here's the scoop on some of graduation's unique customs, from honorary degrees to throwing your cap.

How does a school lure in its graduation speaker?

Sometimes the speakers are alums willing to do a favor for their alma mater, but it often takes a boatload of cash to secure a speaker. Fees can range anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000 for a commencement address, and that's before you tack on extra costs for lodging and occasional perks like private jets. There are some deals out there, though. For example, when Bill Clinton spoke at Florida A&M's graduation in 2009, he waived his usual $100,000 fee. The school did have to pay for his lodging and transport, which totaled over $17,000 for his entourage.

Who received the first honorary degree?

It might seem odd that after you've worked for years to earn your diploma, your school's just throwing around honorary degrees at graduation. Is this a new ego-stroking tool used to convince visiting speakers of how great they are? Hardly. The practice actually dates back more than 500 years.

The first honorary degree on record went to Lionel Woodville sometime around 1478. Oxford forked over an honorary doctorate of canon law to Woodville, who was Dean of Exeter and Edward IV's brother-in-law. Historians say the degree was a shameless ploy to curry favor, but you can't fault Oxford's timing. Woodville became Bishop of Salisbury just four years later.

Does anyone take these degrees seriously?

Well, they're not "real" degrees, since the recipient generally didn't have to do anything to earn them other than be famous and show up for commencement. That doesn't stop some people from running with their honorary degrees' titles, though. Ben Franklin, Billy Graham, and Maya Angelou have all used the title "doctor" despite only having honorary doctorates. Kermit the Frog, on the other hand, received a controversial honorary doctorate of amphibious letters when he spoke at Southampton College's 1996 commencement (though he apparently never bragged about his academic achievement).

Who were the first grads to throw their caps up in the air?

We can thank the Navy for this tradition. It's thought that the practice of chucking one's cap to the heavens at the end of the ceremony started in 1912 at the U.S. Naval Academy's graduation. For the first time the Navy gave the newly commissioned graduates their officers' hats at graduation, so they no longer needed the midshipmen's caps they'd been wearing for the past four years. To show how pleased they were, the new officers tossed their old headgear up in the air. Other students heard about the practice and followed suit.

Is throwing your mortarboard actually dangerous?

Apparently so. "Don't throw your cap!" may sound like ominous "You'll shoot your eye out" kind of nagging from your mom, but the pointed caps do seem to have some destructive power. England's Anglia Ruskin University banned cap-tossing in 2008 after a student received stitches when a mortarboard came down on his noggin a few years ago. A search of medical database PubMed also turns up the case of a 17-year-old girl who took a mortarboard corner to the eye and suffered retinal trauma. Even though these cases seem fairly rare, do you really want to be the guy or gal who's having to say, "Oh, gee, I'm so sorry!" to a newly blinded classmate?

Where did we get the idea of having baccalaureate services?

If you get bored during a baccalaureate service this month, blame Oxford. A 1432 statute required that every Oxford grad deliver a sermon in Latin before he got his sheepskin, and the service took its name from the practice of presenting the new Bachelors (bacca) with laurels (lauri). Since the first colonial colleges modeled themselves after the big-name schools back home in England and largely focused on educating clergymen, the tradition came to the United States. Just thank your lucky stars you only have to hear one sermon, not a Latin sermon from each member of the graduating class.

Where did that song you always hear at graduations come from?

The graduation song is often referred to as "Pomp and Circumstance," but it's actually a small piece of Sir Edward Elgar's 1901 composition "March No. 1 in D Major," part of his "Pomp and Circumstance Military March" series that spanned nearly 30 years of his career.

How did a British military march become a staple of American graduations? In 1905, Elgar received an invitation to come to Yale's commencement and receive an honorary doctorate. To honor their guest, Yale officials had the New Haven Symphony Orchestra play parts of Elgar's compositions as students marched in and out of the ceremony. People enjoyed the tune so much that it soon spread to other schools' graduations. (And just as importantly, it eventually became "Macho Man" Randy Savage's entrance music in the WWF.)

Why do we call diplomas "sheepskins"?

Because they were originally written on a sheep's skin. Early paper was pretty fragile and difficult to make, but parchment was both plentiful and durable. Parchment, of course, is made from the skin of a sheep, goat, or calf, and its durability made it ideal for a keepsake like a diploma.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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