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7 Strange Commencement Speeches

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Author and mental_floss contributor John Green cracked a joke during his Butler commencement address that “these speeches only come in two varieties: short and bad.” One more category should get squeezed in with those first two: bewildering. For every short speech and bad speech, there’s one that leaves graduates scratching their heads. Here are seven of those just plain out-there addresses.

1. Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke, University of Vermont, 2012

For a class of graduates born into the Spongebob generation, the prospect of Nickelodeon’s porous, yellow celebrity and his sidekick, Patrick Star, sending off the class was probably a thrilling one—even if it meant watching the show’s middle-age voice actors bantering back and forth on stage. The Kenny/Fagerbakke duo stayed in character for the entire speech, which concluded with a hip-hop cover of Vitamin C’s (spelled Vitamin S-E-A in the speech, because, you know, nautical puns) seminal “Graduation (Friends Forever).”

Here’s one choice couplet, rapped by Kenny as Squarepants:

I keep thinking about life on Lake Champlain
And how much I miss Squidward, who called me a pain.

2. Billie Jean King, University of Vermont, 2011

The tennis legend served up advice ranging from relationships (“you never know how you’re going to touch another person’s life or how they will touch yours”) to dealing with pressure (“champions in life adjust and adapt”). And then, in true Billie Jean King form, she pulled out a hidden racket and served up tennis balls too, lobbing at least 12 into the audience while Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” played on the speakers.

She had explained that Sir Elton wrote the song in her honor earlier (her friendship with John was a centerpiece of the speech), but didn’t offer any explanation for showing off her wicked forehand by pelting a crowd of about 8000 with tennis balls.

3. Theodor Geisel, Lake Forest College, 1977

“He reached under his academic gown, announcing loudly for all to hear that it was ‘a bathrobe,’ pulled out a piece of paper from his shirt pocket and turned to the microphone,” Lake Forest President Emeritus Eugene Hotchkiss III recalled in 2004. “And the rest, as they say, is history.”

Thirteen years before penning perennial grad gift “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” Dr. Seuss (who actually was a doctor—Lake Forest awarded him a Doctor of Humane Letters degree) read the Class of ‘77 a poem he titled, “My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers.” The poem is about exactly what it sounds like: popovers as metaphors for surviving the real world.

As you partake of the world’s bill of fare,
That’s darned good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.
And be careful what you swallow.

4. Richard T. Jones, University of Maryland, University College, 2011

When the actor who stars in the Why Did I Get Married? films was charged to write the commencement address for UMUC, the smart move would’ve been to actually write a speech. Instead, Jones stumbled through 10 minutes of awkward improvisation, punctuated with bursts of awkward silences. “I had this great speech ready for you guys,” he says early on in the address, “but then they put me behind a bunch of doctors…and they said everything I was going to say. So I figure I’ll just keep talking until I say something.”

The bumbling speech was caught on tape—251,000 thousand views and counting—and for ten minutes long on awkwardness and short on applause, Jones kept talking until he said something.

5. Will Ferrell, Harvard, 2003

Ferrell’s speech, like several of his classic Saturday Night Live sketches, goofed on then-president George W. Bush. The former SNL star recycled his claim-to-fame impression of Bush’s Texan twang to read a letter he promised his audience was a “message from the President of the United States.”

Ferrell jumped from one bit to the next, capping his speech with a rendition of Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind,” singing, “Don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the Harvard alumni endowment fund.” At Harvard’s commencement, Ferrell was Saturday Night Live’s cold open, monologue, and musical guest all in the span of one speech.

6. Aaron Sorkin, Syracuse University, 2012

The screenwriter must have loved the speech he wrote for SU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts convocation in 1997. When he gave the Orange’s commencement speech 15 years later, not much changed. He regaled the audience with some anecdotes from his previous address—casting “A Few Good Men” being one—pretty much verbatim.

Besides revisiting his speech wholesale, Sorkin also lifted quotes from his own shows. One line (“It seems to me that more and more we’ve come to expect less and less from each other, and I think that should change”) appeared in the second season of both “The West Wing” and “Sports Night,” and again in the speech. Quote-ception?

7. Sacha Baron Cohen, Harvard, 2004

The speech started with Baron Cohen walking up to the podium sporting his character Ali G’s trademark red sweatsuit and beanie. It ended with Cohen in the handcuffs of a Harvard University Police Department officer (the arrest was fake).

Transcripts from Ali G’s teleprompter include faux-gangster slang like, “U iz clever and quite fly, if u don’t mind me sayin,” and “Normally da only public-speaking that me does is to 12 people.” Ali G wasn’t awarded any honorary degrees, but it’s not that Sacha Baron Cohen needed one: the comedian/actor is a Cambridge University alumnus.

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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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May 23, 2017
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