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10 Celebrities Who Have Weird Relationships With Academia

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Colleges are notoriously weird; celebrities are equally strange. Sometimes, when the two are combined, magic happens.

1. Brad Pitt // University of Missouri

Like many actors, Brad Pitt dropped out of college early to jump start his acting career. Pitt was so anxious to start said career that he left the University of Missouri only two weeks before graduation. He had one paper left to write in order to complete his final two credits, which he ditched to move to LA. University of Missouri student newspaper The Maneater has a different version of the story in which Pitt’s failed project for Journalism 336, a “hunk calendar,” was the reason for his early departure.

2. Paul Newman // Ohio University

Paul Newman attended three colleges: Ohio University, Yale University, and Kenyon College. He’s somewhat of a legend at OU, though, and it’s not because they use his pasta sauce at the dining halls. There’s a campus rumor that Newman got kicked out of school because he rolled a keg down a hill ... and right into the University president’s car.

3. Howard Stern // Boston University

Howard Stern is also somewhat of a campus legend at his alma mater, Boston University. In 1973, he had an on-campus radio program with his friends called the “King Schmaltz Bagel Hour.” They were fired during their first show right in the middle of a comedy sketch called “Godzilla Goes to Harlem.” There’s still a persistent rumor on campus that Stern once tried to donate a new radio station facility to BU, but they turned him down because they didn’t want his name on the building.

4. Samuel L. Jackson // Morehouse College

In 1969, Samuel L. Jackson was part of a group of students at Morehouse College in Atlanta who held some trustees hostage on campus for two days. The students were protesting the board, which had very few African American members, despite the school being a historically black university. One of the men who the group held hostage was Martin Luther King, Sr.

5. Natalie Portman // Harvard University

Natalie Portman once told the New York Post, “I don’t care if college ruins my career. I’d rather be smart than a movie star.” She didn’t always take her college career so seriously, though, like when she famously parodied her time at Harvard on SNL. Plus, she has admitted to smoking weed in college. Yet her Harvard mentor claimed that Natalie was “inherently bright” with a lot of “intellectual horsepower.” Portman actually sounds like the perfect college student...

6. Claire Danes // Yale University

Claire Danes’s grandfather was once the Dean of Art and Architecture at Yale University, which may have had something to do with her decision to attend the school, even after achieving fame as a teen on My So-Called Life. She regrets her decision to leave after two years, claiming, “In an ideal world, it would have been nice to have graduated ... But in the end, I didn’t really need to go further than I did.” But, hey, maybe those two years pursuing a psychology degree helped with her future career as Agent Carrie Mathison.

7. John Lennon // Liverpool College of Art

John Lennon was expelled from the Liverpool College of Art because he failed his final exams. He later said of his teachers, “I’ve been proved right. They were wrong and I was right. They’re all still there, aren’t they, so they must be the failures.” You can now visit the John Lennon Art and Design Building at the university (now known as Liverpool John Moores University), which Yoko Ono helped develop. She referred to the school as “the springboard for so many influential aspects of his life.”

8. David Letterman // Ball State University

At Ball State University, the David Letterman Telecommunications Scholarship is affectionately referred to as “The David Letterman Scholarship for Average Students.” Of course, the truth is way less fun. The scholarship doesn’t require a certain GPA, but instead, an application in the form of a creative project. But Letterman does have a plaque in the Department of Telecommunications that reads, “Dedicated to all ‘C’ students before and after me!”

9. Jennifer Garner // Denison University

Speaking of Letterman, Jennifer Garner once went on the Late Show and told Dave about her days at Denison University. She used to break into the theater department with her roommate in the middle of the night. But their criminal act was fairly mundane. They would borrow university sewing machines to make scrunchies. Then, the pair would go to dorms and sell them for $3 a piece.

10. Debra Messing // Brandeis University

Debra Messing has admitted to her “complicated experience” at Brandeis University. After high school, she wanted to pursue an acting career, but her parents insisted that she continue her education. She was accepted to the musical theater program at Syracuse University, but went to Brandeis where she recalled there was both a lot of “competition” and “rejection.”

Did any celebrities attend your alma mater? What were the campus stories about them? Let us know in comments!

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]