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Interesting College Courses at Sweet 16 Schools

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Sweet Sixteen schools are obviously pretty good at basketball (this year, anyway). But they're also pretty good at coming up with interesting classes that have students clamoring to enroll. Check out some of the unusual past and present offerings in the Sweet 16.

University of Florida: Lightning Research Laboratory. Students and researchers basically spend their summer trying to trigger lightning. It may be a storm chaser’s dream, but there’s a lot more than just chasing going on here: a few years ago, students in this lab made the groundbreaking discovery that lightning emits x-rays.

Indiana: The Art and Science of Beer was a course offered a few semesters ago, and while getting credit to study suds sounds like a great idea to me, the professor who taught the class said many students were disappointed to find out that it was “a real class instead of a keg stand.”

Michigan State: Surviving the Coming Zombie Apocalypse: Catastrophes & Human Behavior.

Been watching a lot of The Walking Dead? If the AMC series has you wondering how you’ll prepare for the zombie apocalypse, the Spartans have just the class for you; the seven-week course starts in May. Perhaps taking a cue from all of those zombie movies, the faculty even made a trailer for the class:

North Carolina: Into the West. A study of the American cowboy and his depiction in American pop culture. Class work includes writing and producing a short film starring a cowboy. A semester of Rooster Cogburn and Josey Wales? Sign me up.

Louisville: Communicating Hip-Hop Culture. An “analysis of rap music as a communicative force both within and about hip-hop culture”; topics of study include “the origins, development, and participants of the culture.” Fascinating, and students no doubt get to listen to some pretty great music in class.

Syracuse: Star Trek and the Information Age. What can you learn from Star Trek, you might be wondering? Only everything from management skills to unmanned, remote warfare. “The class’s Trekkie TA also mentioned human rights issues: “Is the android who’s on our team, is he considered a human? And why or why not?”

Wisconsin: Daytime Serials: Family and Social Roles. What better way to study familial relationships than by analyzing shows where a character’s stepmother may also be his ex-girlfriend, his child’s mother and his adopted sister?

Officially, the syllabus says:

“Analysis of the themes and characters that populate television's daytime serials and investigation of what impact these portrayals have on women's and men's roles in the family and in the work place. The course will compare and contrast prime-time programs with daytime serials for these themes."

Ohio State: Sports for the Spectator. That’s three credits to “Develop an appreciation of sport as a spectacle, social event, recreational pursuit, business and entertainment.” You think this class involved a couple of field trips?

Kansas: Dance, Dance Revolution. When Dance Dance Revolution was at its height a couple of years ago, Jayhawks could earn a cool credit by getting their groove on with an activity credit. Students who prefer outdoor exercise could play sand volleyball, another pretty sweet way to get a credit.

North Carolina State: Forensic Analysis. This is no textbook course. Students at NC State actually examine bones and other remains to see what they can learn about the deceased. One class even discovered that a previously unidentified victim was actually the sixth in a line of murders attributed to the Edgecombe serial killer.

Baylor: Homosexuality as a Gateway Drug. This course isn't as "interesting" as it is newsworthy: the college made the news in November when they listed this eyebrow-raising sociology class for Spring 2012. After public outcry, the name of the course was changed to “Special Topics in Sociology.” Baylor said the topic was going to be researched by one student as part of an independent study course and was not intended to offend.

We’re always looking for more interesting college classes. If your school has one (or even if you just want to discuss zombies), leave a comment or send me a Tweet.

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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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