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7 Affordable Ways to Further Your Education After College

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Once you've walked across the graduation stage—after spending most of your life as a student—the thought of continuing your education after college is likely banished to the dusty corners of your mind. But a diploma is no excuse to stop learning, even if your formal education has come to an end. There are plenty of ways to continue broadening your horizons as a post-grad without adding to the mountains of student debt you’ve already accrued. 

1. TAKE FREE CLASSES ONLINE.

Online education tends to get a bad rap, but some of the most prestigious universities in the world now offer college courses through the Internet to anyone who wants to take them. And the best part? A lot of them are completely free. 

One major example is edX, a MOOC (massive open online course) provider that hosts courses from dozens of respected schools, including Harvard and MIT (the platform's founders), Columbia, the University of Texas, and the Sorbonne, to name a few. Classes starting this spring include Finance for Everyone: Smart Tools for Decision-Making (University of Michigan), World of Wine: Grape to Glass (University of Adelaide), and Mastering Quantum Mechanics Part 3 (MIT). And if you’re looking for something to show potential employers, you can pay a small fee to receive a certificate verifying your completion at the end of the course.

2. ATTEND LECTURES.

A college classroom isn’t the only place you can go to hear educational lectures. Bookstores and museums often host talks, readings, and discussions that are likely much more stimulating than what you experienced in your 9 a.m. lecture hall. Whether you’re interested in social media or the World Refugee Crisis, there’s an expert out there who’s waiting to share their knowledge with you. 

3. TAKE FIELD TRIPS.

Field trips were hands-down the best part of being a student, but that doesn’t mean adults can’t take them, too. Gather together a group of like-minded friends and set aside a day to visit a museum, aquarium, planetarium, or historical landmark in your area. Or better yet: Go alone and really take your time soaking in the sights. 

4. JOIN A BOOK CLUB.

After college, you no longer have a professor assigning you books to read and deadlines to finish them by. This can feel freeing at first, but finding the time to read for pleasure amidst the chaos of adult life isn’t always as easy as it looks. Joining a book club will motivate you to stick to your reading habit and also give you a forum to discuss your thoughts on the book once you’ve finished it. If you live in a larger city, you may even be able to find clubs that are tailored specifically to your favorite type of literature. And unlike formal literature classes, you won’t need to show up with a 10-page report in hand.

5. SIGN UP FOR COMMUNITY COLLEGE COURSES.

If you miss the structure and one-on-one engagement that comes with a traditional classroom setting, there’s still a way to get that experience without breaking the bank. Most community colleges offer semester-long courses for just a few hundred bucks, which is roughly equivalent to what a handful of class sessions would cost you at some private universities. That’s a great deal considering any credits you earn at the end will have real value when hunting for jobs or eventually pursuing your formal education even further. 

6. LEARN HOW TO READ A SCIENTIFIC PAPER (AND THEN DO IT).

Ideally, being an adult means being able to form educated opinions about what’s happening in the world around you. Instead of hearing about the latest scientific breakthroughs through blogs and misinformed tweets, give yourself the power to interpret the findings on your own by going straight to the source. Scientific papers aren’t structured like articles or blog posts, and learning how to read and comprehend them is a skill that needs to be learned. This article from the Huffington Post does a good job of explaining how to navigate a primary research article if you have no experience doing so. Once you have that skill mastered, you’ll be ready to tackle any scientific study with confidence.

7. VISIT THE LIBRARY.

The best resource for a free and enriching education is still your local library. In addition to the wealth of nonfiction, literature, and instructional materials available to anyone with a library card, many libraries also offer a variety of services that extend beyond books. Some locations offer resume help, digital downloads, tax assistance, ancestry information, cooking classes, and even telescopes for members to check out. Next time you visit your town’s library, ask the librarian about some of the less conventional resources they may offer.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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