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12 Celebrity Professors

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As college students head back to class for the fall semester, many of them will take classes with professors who are well known within their fields. A select few, though, will get to listen to lectures from bona fide celebrities. Here’s a look at a few big names who have ventured into academia in the past.

1. Oprah

In 1999 Oprah co-taught a class at Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management. Her co-teacher wasn’t some stuffy tenured professor, either; it was her longtime beau, marketing consultant Stedman Graham. Oprah and Stedman taught a second-year M.B.A. course on “Dynamics of Leaderships.” The talk-show host quipped on her first day of class, “Somewhere Mrs. Duncan, my fourth grade teacher, is very happy today.”

2. John Cleese

The Monty Python funnyman left Cambridge when he was 20, but he really took a liking to another prestigious university: Cornell. Cleese became an A.D. White Professor-at-Large in 1998 for a term of six years. He proved so popular and enjoyed the work so much, though, that Cornell extended him for another two years. When that stint ended in 2006, Cornell found another way to keep Cleese on campus for another three years as the Provost’s Visiting Professor. Cleese did a little bit of everything on campus, from teaching a class on comedy to delivering a Sunday sermon to eating in the dining halls with students.

3. Tony Blair

The former British Prime Minister spent the 2008-2009 academic year as the Howland Distinguished Fellow at Yale, where he worked with both the divinity and management schools to develop the Yale Faith and Globalization Seminar, which looked at the interplay of various faiths as the global economy grew.

4. Kevin Spacey

The Oscar winner took his talents across the pond for the 2008-2009 academic calendar when he took a yearlong appointment as a theater professor at Oxford. Spacey told the British press that he hoped to help aspiring actors get a better feel for the off-stage part of show business, saying, “I'll try very hard to give them some practical advice about agents and auditions and how to just deal with the day-to-day business of trying to start a career.”

5. Jesse Ventura

Jesse “The Body” Ventura may have dropped out of college, but that didn’t stop him from getting an appointment as a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in the spring of 2004. Harvard spokespeople said that the former Minnesota governor’s appointment was actually the idea of the school’s undergraduates, and the man who once wore feather boas in the wrestling ring gave seminars on various aspects of politics.

6. Allen Ginsberg

Who better to teach poetry than the renowned Beat poet? In 1986 Brooklyn College of the City University of New York decided that the man who wrote “Howl” was just what its poetry MFA program needed, so Ginsberg taught masters students for a full academic year.

7. Salman Rushdie

Author Salman Rushdie survived a fatwa following the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses, so he surely has no problem fending off students while serving as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emory University. Rushdie signed up for a five-year hitch as the Atlanta school’s writer in residence starting with the spring 2007 semester; the position requires him to lead a graduate seminar, teach at least four weeks a year, and participate in undergrad classes. Better still for the school, Emory’s Robert Woodruff Library also nabbed the Booker Prize winner’s archives in the deal.

8. Spike Lee

In the spring of 1992, the director rode his hits like Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever to a position at Harvard. Lee taught a film course on the history of black cinema since 1964; his syllabus said the course dealt “with matters of craft and technique as these combine to produce representative, truthful or stereotypical images of African-Americans." Lee jokingly asked his students to call him “Professor Spike” and not to talk to the press about the course, explaining, “Having the press there is not conducive to learning. I didn't come up here for that."

9. Alec Baldwin

You can’t take an MBA class from Jack Donaghy, but this was probably the next best thing. In the summer of 2002 Baldwin taught a theater class at Southampton University.

10. Placido Domingo

In early 1994 the famed tenor took a spot as an adjunct professor of music at UCLA. While students may not have been able to belt out songs quite as well as Domingo, they did get the pleasure of having him conduct several orchestral and choral concerts.

11. Kal Penn

Kalpen Modi, better known as actor Kal Penn of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle fame, was a guest instructor at the University of Pennsylvania during the spring of 2008. While at Penn, Penn taught two undergrad courses, “Images of Asian Americans in the Media” and “Contemporary American Teen Films.”

12. Dennis Green

The rest of the faculty may have been who students thought they were, but in 2008 former NFL coach Dennis Green joined San Diego State’s College of Business Administration as an instructor in the Sports Business Management MBA program. Green taught BA703, Strategic Management, an appointment that no doubt prompted a few derisive chuckles from fans of Green’s old Vikings and Cardinals teams. No word on whether he taught students the ins and outs of throwing tantrums in press conferences, but rest assured that he didn’t let his students off the hook for anything.

Image Credits: Oprah Winfrey: Reuters/CORBIS; Jesse Ventura: Andy King/Sygma/Corbis; Alec Baldwin: NBC.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”