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15 Books Incoming College Freshmen Had to Read This Summer 

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Duke University recently made headlines after some of its incoming freshmen refused to read the college’s required common reading assignment. The book in question was Fun Home: a graphic (and, well, occasionally graphic) novel by Alison Bechdel that explores themes of sexuality, mental health, and family relationships.

“The book is a quick read but not an easy one; it made me uncomfortable at times, which I think is one of the most telling reasons why it's so important for students to read,” Ibaca Anand, a student who helped university administrators select Fun Home, told Duke Today.

So far, no students from other schools have publicly come forward with similar protests. However, the entire debate raises the question: What other books are the rest of the country's incoming freshmen reading, and why were they chosen? Just in time for back-to-school season, here's a sampling of summer reading assignments from colleges across the country.

1. Elon University // Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr.

King writes about the non-violent movement against racial segregation in this seminal 1963 work. “The book is a timeless classic, the sort of work that everyone should read at least once,” Elon University’s website states. “The book’s messages resonate strongly with modern events/conditions happening all around us, both in our local community and around the world.”

2. University of California-Los Angeles // Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Gay is as well known for her prolific social media presence as she is for her second book, Bad Feminist—a buzzy collection of essays that explore the challenges of being a feminist in today’s contradictory, pop culture-saturated world. According to university chancellor Gene D. Block, the book will “provide the university community with a platform for engaging in critical dialogue and discussion around a variety of topics including politics, American culture, race, gender, sexual orientation, perceptions of feminism, etc.”  

3. University of Delaware // Just Mercy  by Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson, an attorney who hails from Milton, Delaware, founded the Equal Justice Initiative—a nonprofit that provides legal services to impoverished, wrongly convicted, and marginalized clients. Just Mercy details the case of Walter McMillian, a young Southern man who was exonerated from Death Row after Stevenson helped prove his innocence. Stevenson’s book "challenges us to consider what justice truly is," says the University of Delaware's website

4. Skidmore College // Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman 

Alan Lightman, who teaches physics and writing at M.I.T., fuses together science and the humanities in his collection of stories depicting a young Albert Einstein fine-tuning his theory of relativity. “Together these essays provide a sense of the breadth and depth of thinking made possible by an education in the liberal arts,” says Janet Casey, a professor of English at Skidmore College. 

5. Penn State // The Boom by Russell Gold 

Written by Wall Street Journal investigative reporter Russell Gold, The Boom chronicles the rise of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in America. “Fracking is an issue very relevant to Pennsylvania communities, and we thought it would be good to engage students, faculty and staff about something that’s going on right within our home state,” says Barry Bram, special assistant to Damon Sims, the university’s vice president of student affairs. 

6. Seton Hall University // The Ledge by Jim Davidson and Kevin Vaughan 

The Ledge—a harrowing true story of one mountain climber’s near-death experience—is all about survival. “College students need both grit (the ability to tough it out) and resiliency (the ability to bounce back from adversity) if they expect to persist and graduate,” states a prompt for the university’s summer reading essay contest, which instructs students to describe a personal situation that required profound inner strength. 

7. Smith College // The Collapse of Western Civilization by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway 

Imagine this: The year is 2393, and the world has been ravaged by climate change. In The Collapse of Western Civilization, Oreskes and Conway paint a picture of how this hypothetical situation could occur. They also urge contemporary readers to take action and prevent it. This book is "a timely and thought-provoking novel about the effects of climate change, a topic of pressing importance for us all,” Smith College’s website writes.

8. Johns Hopkins University // The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Last spring, Coates served as the inaugural speaker for JHU’s brand-new "Forum on Race in America"—the very same week riots tore across Baltimore following Freddie Gray’s death.

However, Hopkins didn’t choose the thought leader’s latest memoir based on timeliness alone. He's also a local boy. “Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in Baltimore and his book is an account of his experiences as a boy growing up in our city,” says Johns Hopkins University

9. Ball State University // Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

Dumas immigrated to California from her native Iran when she was only 7 years old. Ball State freshmen are provided with discussion questions that instruct them to draw parallels between Dumas’s story of assimilation and their own lives. They’re also asked to research various facets of Iranian culture, including traditional gender roles, the nation’s political history, and the religion of Islam. 

10. Tufts University // Acts of Faith  by Eboo Patel

Patel founded the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based nonprofit that promotes interfaith dialogue and understanding through community service projects. Equal parts memoir and call-to-action, Patel’s “personal story explores important questions of community, compassion, and commitment and resonates strongly with our core values of active citizenship and global engagement,” writes Tufts University president Anthony P. Monaco.

11. Northwestern University // The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King 

This unvarnished look at the tumultuous history of Native people in North America “will help diminish the ignorance many of us have and focus on some important issues that don’t normally come to the fore in media,” says Professor Loren Ghiglione, the faculty chair of the 2015-16 One Book One Northwestern program. 

12. Princeton University // Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele

Stereotypes aren’t truth—but they can shape our identities. In Whistling Vivaldi, renowned social psychologist Claude Steele takes a hard look at how judgments like “Women aren’t good at math” or “African-American men are violent” harm us on both an individual and societal level. “Professor Steele describes a series of inventive experiments—including some involving Princeton students—that enabled him to develop and test his hypothesis about how negative stereotypes affect us in times of stress,” says Christopher L. Eisgruber, Princeton University’s president. “All of us, no matter what our backgrounds may be, will recognize ourselves in some of Professor Steele’s examples.”

13. Texas State University // ...And The Earth Did Not Devour Himby Tomás Rivera

Rivera’s memoir details the abuses, triumphs, and sorrows he experienced as a child of migrant farm workers in south Texas. The book helps kick off a year-long Texas State University initiative, “Bridged Through Stories,” which encourages students to learn more about the shared heritage of the United States and Mexico. 

14. University of Idaho // All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Doerr's dual narrative tells the tale of a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and a German orphan named Werner who meet in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. The university doesn't specify why, exactly, it chose this book as its 2015 Common Read. It can't hurt, though, that Doerr was Idaho's writer-in-residence from 2007-2010. Another plus: The book won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

15. Cornell University // Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut was a Cornell student before he dropped out of college in 1943 to enlist in the Army. While fighting in World War II, he was captured by German soldiers. The bombing of Dresden inspired his most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five—the same book that Cornell's incoming freshmen read this past summer.

“Vonnegut’s eminence, his reflections on the ideals and challenges of a generation, and his Cornell roots make Slaughterhouse-Five an exceptional selection for our reading project this coming year,” senior vice provost for undergraduate education, Laura Brown, told the Cornell Chronicle

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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
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science
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]

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