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The mental_floss Guide to the NCAA Tournament: The West

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We may not be much help in filling out your bracket, but we can promise one interesting fact about each of the 68 teams in the tournament. Let's tip things off with the West Region.

© Chris Bergin/Icon SMI/Corbis

(1) Michigan State
In May, a Michigan State professor from the School of Social Work will begin teaching an online course called “Surviving the Coming Zombie Apocalypse: Catastrophes and Human Behavior."

(16) Long Island
The Arnold and Marie Schwartz Athletic Center on the Long Island University campus has been owned by the university since 1962. But before Arnold and Marie got their hands on it, it was the Paramount Theatre. When it opened in 1928, it was the first theatre designed specifically to show movies with sound.

(8) Memphis
Memphis has a live tiger mascot. Tom I was introduced at a Memphis State-Cincinnati football game in 1972 and lived at the Memphis Zoo until his death in 1992. Tom III, who was born at the Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue and Educational Center, was introduced in November 2009.

(9) St. Louis
St. Louis University's mascot is the Billiken. What is a Billiken, exactly? According to the "What is a Billiken?" page on the school's website, the school has no idea. But they do know the Billiken is "a good-luck figure who represents things as they ought to be."
(5) New Mexico
According to the school, it picked the Spanish word for “wolf” as its nickname in 1920. The school paper wrote, “The Lobo is respected for his cunning, feared for his prowess, and is the leader of the pack. It is the ideal name for the Varsity boys who go forth to battle for the glory of the school. All together now; fifteen rahs for the LOBOS.”

(12) Long Beach State
Both Steve Martin and Steven Spielberg dropped out of Long Beach State. The school gave Martin an honorary doctorate in 1989; instead of the traditional mortarboard, he wore an arrow-through-the-head hat. And Spielberg returned 34 years after dropping out to earn his BA. His film professor accepted Schindler's List in place of the short student film normally required to pass the class.
(4) Louisville
Louisville contains at least one sight that art lovers can’t miss: one of the original monumental size bronze casts of Rodin’s The Thinker. U of L’s version of the sculpture sits outside of Grawemeyer Hall and is actually the very first bronze cast of The Thinker that Rodin made. The cast itself dates back to 1903, but it’s been at its current spot on Louisville’s campus since 1949.

(13) Davidson
The Davidson campus outside of Charlotte was designated a registered national arboretum (a place where trees are on display) in 1982 and boasts more than 3,000 tagged varieties of trees and shrubs across 100 acres. For any Davidson students who enjoy hijinks, the twigs of the campus’s rare gingko tree can really stink up a dorm room if you hide some in your hallmate’s radiator.
(6) Murray State

Murray State features an odd campus attraction: a tree with dozens of shoes nailed to it. If two students meet at Murray State and later marry, tradition dictates that each nails a shoe to the tree. If the couple has children, they nail a baby shoe to the tree. The shoe tree visitors to campus can view is actually the second shoe tree; the original was lost in a lightning strike. (Downside of filling a tree with nails, we guess.)

(11) Colorado State
The school's most notorious graduate was Anwar al-Awlaki, who earned a BS in civil engineering in 1994. A top recruiter and coordinator for al-Qaeda, al-Awlaki was killed by a predator drone strike in 2011.
(3) Marquette
Chris Farley went to Marquette and donned his Marquette Rugby jacket during a scene in Tommy Boy. (Tommy also went to Marquette, though it took him seven years to graduate.)

(14) Brigham Young
Provo, Utah, is home to both BYU and, which boasts more than 1.7 million paying subscribers. The company began as a print publisher of Ancestry magazine and genealogy books.

(14) Iona
Iona counts Don McLean among its famous alumni. McLean, who grew up in New Rochelle, NY, attended night school and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from his neighborhood school in 1968.
(7) Florida
Constructed in 1953, the school's 157-foot Century Tower houses a 57,760-pound carillon that is played using 61 keys and 25 pedals. Students can take a carillon class in which they ultimately have to play the Century Tower carillon for their grade.

(10) Virginia

While the Cavalier is the official mascot of the University of Virginia, their unofficial mascot is the wahoo—a saltwater game fish whose claim to fame is that it can drink twice its own body weight, temporarily increasing its size to fend off enemies. This would be quite a handy skill in the tournament. [Image credit: Jaryd Waegerle, Wahoo Wire]
(2) Missouri
Missouri’s mascot is named Truman the Tiger after Harry Truman, the only U.S. president from Missouri.

(15) Norfolk State
Norfolk State, located in southeastern Virginia, is one of the largest historically black colleges in the country. Paul Hines, a coach on the T.C. Williams football team featured in Remember the Titans, attended Norfolk State for two years before finishing at Virginia State College.

Your esteemed fact-finding crew: Jamie Spatola, Stacy Conradt, Ethan Trex, Colin Perkins, Scott Allen and Meg McGinn. They'll be back with another region later tonight.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]