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10 Things Disappearing from Elementary Schools

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istock

Modern technology has changed the American classroom in many ways, as have parental attitudes. Here are some elementary school essentials that are either long gone or starting to disappear from the classroom.

1. Blackboards

The first classroom blackboard was reportedly installed at West Point in 1801. As the railroads spread across the U.S., so did chalkboards, as slate was now easily hauled long-distance from mines in Vermont, Maine, and Pennsylvania. By the 1960s, though, blackboards began to go green—literally. Steel plates coated with porcelain enamel replaced the traditional slate boards; the green was easier on the eyes and chalk erased more completely off of the paint. In the 1990s, though, whiteboards began creeping into classrooms. Turns out that even “dustless” chalk annoyed kids with allergies and got into the nooks and crannies of the computers that were beginning to become classroom fixtures.

2. Recess

There are many reasons why some schools are eliminating or shortening recess: students need every available moment for academics in order to prepare for standardized tests, too much liability lest a child gets injured, not enough budget to hire sufficient playground supervision, etc. Some schools that do still have recess have banned dodgeball or games like tag. Other schools have Recess Coaches who provide structured play and conflict resolution (Rock-Paper-Scissors rather than Pink Bellies) on the playground.

3. Cursive Penmanship

Who could have predicted that one day cursive handwriting would become a hot-button issue along the lines of school prayer and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance? But thanks to computers and texting and all that fancy technology, script handwriting is slowly going the way of the abacus. Many educators believe that legible printing and good typing skills are all today’s students need to learn to succeed in the world, and cursive is a non-essential skill. I recall feeling quite grown-up when I started learning cursive in the second grade—I could now read all that “secret” stuff my mom and other adults were writing down!

4. Wall-Mounted Hand Crank Pencil Sharpeners

Maybe teachers were made of sturdier stuff Back in the Day, or maybe they just had a stock of Valium in the teacher’s lounge…how else did they survive without the “Classroom-Friendly Pencil Sharpeners” that are all the rage? Some are electric, some are manual, but they are quiet and many have a pop-out feature to prevent over-sharpening. Sure, these old-style sharpeners were awkward for southpaws to use, but to take away the fun of grinding a pencil down to a stub just for the heck of it? Sheesh.

5. Paste

Many school supply lists today require glue sticks, not the good ol’ white paste in a jar with an applicator that smelled so minty good it always inspired at least one kid to eat the stuff.

6. Film Projectors

The really fancy models came with a playback device that “beeped” when it was time to advance the filmstrip to the next frame. And it always seemed to take forever to get the picture just right on the screen (propping it up on one book, then two…then focusing…). But we didn’t mind the delay—it was just that much more time that we didn’t have to spend actually studying or paying attention.

7. 16mm Movie Projectors

The A/V captain had to turn the volume up to 11 most of the time, due to the poor sound quality of the ancient films and the clack-clack-clack noise of the sprocket holes moving through the machinery. Sometimes a series of holes were broken and the film would get “stuck” or skip. The projectionist knew then to stick a pencil in the lower loop and pull it just so to get the classic Coronet or Jiminy Cricket “I’m No Fool” educational short back on track.

8. Pencil Sharpeners with Exposed Razors

You probably don’t see many pencil cases with built-in times table cheat sheets any more, and even pocket pencil sharpeners have undergone a transformation in recent years. The models sold for student use are much more safety-oriented, with the blade concealed in a plastic cup or enclosure of some sort. In fact, in 2008 police were summoned to a school in Hilton Head, South Carolina, when a student was “caught” possessing a small razor blade. The police report stated that the “weapon” was obviously from a pocket pencil sharpener that had broken (the kid had the broken plastic pieces, too), but the school was obliged to call the law due to their “zero tolerance for weapons” policy.

9. Cigar Boxes

Even back in the 1960s, you could buy “school boxes” that were the same size and had the same hinged lid as a cigar box, but they had cutesy pictures of the alphabet and school supplies painted on them. And they cost money. So when kids brought home that list of necessary school supplies every year, many parents went to the local drugstore and got an empty cigar box for free. There was something rather soothing about opening that box up during the day to retrieve a pencil or ruler and getting a quick whiff of rich tobacco aroma. By the end of the year, of course, ol’ King Edward had an eye patch and warts drawn all over his face. Thanks to the decline of smoking in the U.S. and the idea of a tobacco product being near a first grader’s desk, most students bring those store-bought boxes to class these days.

10. Mimeographed Sheets

Sometimes called “dittos” and technically referred to as a spirit duplicator, they reproduced multiple copies of an original document in dark purple ink for the teacher to pass out. But the most important thing about a ditto sheet was the aroma—a fresh one smelled heavenly. It was pretty much a reflex—as soon as you were handed a freshly mimeographed paper, you lifted it up to your face and inhaled that delicious, indescribable fragrance.

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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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