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22 Fascinating and Bizarre Classes Offered This Semester

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From the Sociology of Lady Gaga to the Joy of Garbage, here are some of the coolest and weirdest college courses being taught this fall.

1. Sociology of Fame and Lady Gaga
University of South Carolina

© Michael Travis/Corbis

No, you won’t get extra credit for wearing sirloin to class. As the syllabus warns, “This is not a course in Lady Gaga but in sociology; and it is not a course about Lady Gaga as much as about the culture of the fame as exemplified by the career of Lady Gaga. There will be no PowerPoint presentations in this class nor any music or videos.”

2. Wordplay: A Wry Plod from Babel to Scrabble
Princeton University

Obsessed with Words With Friends? If you’re at Princeton, you’ll almost certainly enjoy this class, where students will "challenge one another to games of Scrabble and Boggle, and enjoy the 'Princeton dimension' of the whole enterprise."

3. “Oh, Look, a Chicken!” Embracing Distraction as a Way of Knowing
Belmont University

Not only does it have an amazing name, “Oh, Look, a Chicken!” has the best course description I’ve ever read:

"Oh, look, a Chicken"....This course will pursue ways of knowing through embracing [little ants, carrying a morsel of food across the table] what it means to be a distracted [I could sure enjoy a peanut butter sandwich right now] learner as well as [OMG--I get to go to the beach this summer] developing an awareness [I need to trim my fingernails] of one's senses. The instructor teaches in the school of music, [do I hear water dripping?] so there will be an element related to that woven [spiders are amazing] into the course. [oh, it's the fish tank behind me] Those registering for this section may even learn to juggle [I'll be right down, I just have to finish this...what was I working on?].

 
4. Things That Go Bump in the Night
Hampshire College

Great course title, and fascinating topic. It looks at “experimental topics in the philosophy of mind,” including phantom limb phenomena, ambiguous figures and “split-brain syndrome,” when the two brain hemispheres seem to be occupied by two independent consciousnesses.

5. Theory and History of Video Games
Swarthmore

"Historical, cultural and formal perspectives on video games, tracing their emergence as new medium, big business, and social force.” If this means playing Halo and Mario Kart in class, I’m sure it’ll be a big hit. (It must be - registration for the class is already closed.)

6. Fly Fishing
Montana State

And if fly fishing doesn’t trip your trigger, you can also earn a credit for pocket billiards, bowling fundamentals, or Skiing, Snowboarding and Telemarking.

7. Physics for Future Presidents
UC Berkeley

Planning to fill Obama’s shoes one days? Then you better check out this course, which will make you well-versed in topics like spy satellites, medical imaging, nuclear weapons and energy conservation.

8. Zombies in Popular Media
Columbia College Chicago

Capitalizing on the current zombie trend? Maybe, but it still sounds like fun:

"This course explores the history, significance, and representation of the zombie as a figure in horror and fantasy texts. Instruction follows an intense schedule, using critical theory and source media (literature, comics, and films) to spur discussion and exploration of the figures many incarnations. Daily assignments focus on reflection and commentary, while final projects foster thoughtful connections between student disciplines and the figure of the zombie."

9. Cyborg Anthropology
Lewis & Clark College

Finally, you’ll know what Skynet knows. OK, not quite - it’s actually about “Cultural practices surrounding the production and consumption of technoscientific and biomedical knowledge,” but “Representation of science and technology in popular culture” all but guarantees a viewing of at least one of the Terminators.
 
10. Popular Flops: Bad Movies
Tufts

I have a feeling this seminar will be a blockbuster, even if they are looking at some of the biggest flops to grace the silver screen. Sounding equally interesting is “Are You There God? It’s Me, Gossip Girl.”

11. Philosophy and The Wire
Georgetown

Philosophy and Star Trek has been around for a while, but The Wire is a more recent addition to college courses inspired by the small screen. As in the Lady Gaga course, the college is careful to mention that the class isn’t actually about the show:

“The class is not about The Wire; instead, the class will use The Wire as an environment for philosophical work, a dramatic and shared vehicle for scratching beneath the surface of the everyday concept of responsibility to find questions we hadn’t thought to ask and to begin to answer them.”

12. Tightwaddery, or the Good Life on a Dollar a Day
Alfred University

Is it really possible to live on a buck a day? This honors seminar at Alfred doesn’t presume to say that you should be shopping at the 99 cent store, but rather asks the question that Socrates once asked: “What is the good life for a human being?”

13. Biology of Jurassic Park
Hood College

From the syllabus: “Even though they are extinct, dinosaurs can serve as models to understand many biological principles, including patterns of biodiversity, evolution, extinction, community ecology, homeostasis and behavior. To understand these principles, we will answer questions such as: How many species of dinosaurs were there? Are birds really dinosaurs? Did dinosaurs show parental care?"

The real question, I think, is whether velociraptors can be brought back to life and exhibited in an amusement park.

14. Joy of Garbage
Santa Clara University

What would have happened to Woody and the Toy Story 3 gang if they hadn’t escaped that incinerator by the skin of their teeth? That’s what Santa Clara University wants you to know. Your unwanted junk is recycled, burned, reused, shipped abroad or dumped on minority communities.

15. Disney Feature: Then and Now
UCLA

“Evaluation of why Disney's animated features have dominated until recently and ramifications of this dominance on animation and society.” Do you suppose it includes field trips to nearby Disneyland or Disney Studios? I’m guessing not.

16. How to Watch Television
Montclair State

Has that big screen in your living room always perplexed you? Flummoxed by the little rectangle that seems to control its every image and sound? Sorry to say, this class isn’t going to help. Despite its title, “How to Watch Television” is really about analyzing the medium and evaluating TV’s impact on our lives.

17. Invented Languages: Klingon and Beyond
University of Texas at Austin

The class explores the Star Trek language and Esperanto, among others. I’m willing to bet there’s a bit of Elvish thrown in there, too.

18. The Phallus
Occidental College

I feel like this one speaks for itself, but just in case you need it spelled out for you, here’s an excerpt from the syllabus: Topics include the signification of the phallus, the relation of the phallus to masculinity, femininity, genital organs and the fetish, the whiteness of the phallus, and the lesbian phallus.

19. The Textual Appeal of Tupac Shakur
University of Washington

Though Tupac has been gone for nearly 15 years, he lives on at U-Dub. The course “explores the philosophical, historical and literary influences of the late rapper and activist, Tupac Shakur.”

20. The American Vacation
University of Iowa

Sounds like a breezy look at the Hamptons, Disneyland and Route 66, doesn’t it? Not quite. Students will focus on “Social history of vacations; cultural significance of contemporary patterns; [and] how experiences and meanings are shaped by race, class, gender.”

21. California Culture
San Francisco State

Are California Gurls really undeniable? You probably won’t find confirmation of Katy Perry’s lyrics in this course. It’s more about the state as a “flawed paradise” and addresses the Golden State’s function in Pacific relations. You'll also examine the “dynamics of California society and culture in recent times.”

22. Goldberg’s Canon: Makin’ Whoopi
Bates College

If you’ve been dying to take this class since we first mentioned it a few years ago, your time has finally come: Makin’ Whoopi is back at Bates this semester.
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Does your school offer anything that should have made the list? Let us hear it in the comments!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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