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11 Notes on Alfred W. Lawson, Founder of the Weirdest University Ever

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Many noble Americans have founded universities, but Alfred W. Lawson's school was devoted entirely to the study of his own questionable teachings. Did Lawson build the University of Lawsonomy out of pure hubris, or of genuine concern for the human race? Perhaps, as he posits, “Ninety nine per cent (roughly estimated) of the human race lack imagination” (parentheses his). Perhaps you have unwittingly spent your life as a dullard, because until you’ve learned Lawsonomy, “you are not educated.” Well, dear readers: Educate yourselves. Enter the imagination of Alfred W. Lawson, the man, the mystery, the shameless self-promoter who once claimed, of himself, in his awkwardly named magazine Manlife: “If Lawson should die today, posterity will honor and glorify him as no other mortal, because he has given mankind the true base from which to start an edifice of super-knowledge of the universe and its laws.”

1. Lawson claimed that from the moment of his birth in 1869 (“...the most momentous occurrence since the birth of mankind”), he was destined for greatness. His father, Robert Henry Lawson, spent decades trying to patent a perpetual motion machine, an ultimately misguided devotion that became formative in young Alfred’s understanding of the laws of “physics.”

2. At age eighteen, Lawson became a pitcher in the early days of professional baseball. He bounced around from team to team for a few seasons without making an impact. Lawson fared just as poorly on the business side of the game, founding and folding three leagues with bombastic names like Union Leagues of Professional Base Ball Clubs of America.

3. When baseball failed him, Lawson decided to start publishing an aviation magazine aimed at general audiences—a brave undertaking, considering (a) Lawson had no experience in either publishing or aviation, and (b) in 1908, only about three people in the world had actually flown airplanes. Fueled by the belief that air travel was the way of the future, Lawson managed to popularize two magazines, Fly and Aircraft, and helped popularize the latter term in the process.

© Bettmann/CORBIS

4. Though Lawson may not have invented the word “aircraft,” he most likely did invent the word “airliner.” Because...he actually invented the airliner. Rather, he invented the idea of the airliner, and (ever undeterred by his lack of technical knowledge) hired a team of designers and engineers who could literally give his vision wings.

In Milwaukee in 1920, Lawson unveiled the world’s first airliner: the largest non-military plane in the U.S. at that point, with a capacity of 16—26, if removable seats were placed in the aisle. Lawson Airlines was born.

5. As the U.S. entered the Great Depression, Lawson’s lofty endeavors struggled. He authored Direct Credits for Everybody, a utopian manifesto about a society in which “Direct Credits” would be used instead of money as a way to indicate ownership of land, products or labor. Kind of like money, but...not. The subtleties of Lawson’s concepts, he claimed, couldn’t be understood unless you also understood physics. “Economics is a side partner of a couple that can’t be separated.”

6. Lawson had his own version of physics, of course, based almost entirely on a childhood observation that dust could be moved through space by sucking and blowing. As such, Lawsonic physics were based on principles of “Suction” and “Pressure” acting upon substances. “Substances,” by the way, are everything, ever: air, “other gases,” solids, liquids, “mentality,” heat, cold, light, sound, electricity the “ether of outer space,” and something called “lesether” (see below). Energy had no place in Lawsonic physics: “There is no greater load of misconception that Science has ever had to shoulder than the unprovable theory that somewhere, somehow, and in some shape, there exists a substance called Energy that causes movement. No such thing exists anywhere and Science should expunge the fallacy without delay.”

7. Lesether, for the uninformed, is comprised of substances “supplied directly by the Sun in currents of various density and also by solid substances which are drawn into the Solar System, such as meteors and other cosmic debris which are dissolved into gases by contact with the atmosphere of the Earth.” Obviously.

8. Another Lawsonic law: Given ideal circumstances, universal substances can achieve a “state of maturity” called “Equaeverpoise,” or “a perpetual movement of matter.” (Sound familiar?) Inside the body, Equaeverpoise is called “Lawsonpoise,” which -- achieved via the proper combination of diet, hygiene, rest and exercise -- can potentially allow a human being to live 200 years. In short, Lawsonomy leads one to become one’s own perpetual motion machine.

9. By 1943, Lawson had published over 50 volumes, and he decided it was time to found a school. He managed to raise over $100,000 to buy an abandoned college campus and convert it to the Des Moines University of Lawsonomy (later renamed and relocated to Sturtevant, Wisconsin). There, people young and old gathered to study Lawsonomy and live communally according to its principles. At its height, DMUL boasted two thousand “part time students,” but the number had fallen to the lower hundreds by Lawson’s death in 1954.

10. Students of the University of Lawsonomy were expected to devote all their study to Lawson’s works -- in fact, no other books were allowed on campus. Exams entailed verbatim recitation of Lawson’s works, and therefore took years of study; interim exams were supposed to be held after 10-20 years, and a comprehensive exam after 30, at which point passing students would receive the degree of “Knowledgian.” By the time he died, Alfred Lawson was the only person holding the degree of Knowledgian, which posed a problem: Only Knowledgians could bestow the degree of Knowledgian. Officers of the University tweaked the laws a bit, and eventually graduated several Knowledgians, all well into their sixties.

11. With such a workload, Lawsonomy left little room for life after graduation. As for post-graduate work, the University of Lawsonomy offered Lawsonian Religion, intended to provide students the highest “grade of consciousness.”

In recent years, the Lawsonic community has been reduced to a cult following and a few mysterious internet advertisements for Lawsonomy Student Reunions. As of the publication of this article, the University of Lawsonomy has yet to return our calls.

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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]