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10 Legendary Monsters of North America: Part Two

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Legendary monsters live wherever there are people to tell the tales to -including North America, where there are many more than will fit into one post. This is part two of a list that began last week. And there are plenty more scary tales to tell!

1. Ogopogo

Ogopogo lives in Lake Okanagan in British Columbia. Several of Canada's deep lakes have monsters, but Ogopogo is the best known. Native legends of N'ha-a-itk, meaning the lake monster, go way back. First Nations accounts pinpoint the home of the monster at a cave under Squally Point near Rattlesnake Island. A sighting by Mrs. John Allison in 1872 brought the legend into the modern era, and many people have reported sightings of "something" in the water since then. Ogopogo is described as 20-50 feet long, with a horse-shaped head and a serpentine body. Mysterious photographs have been taken of unidentified lake creatures. Whatever is down there, it is a protected species. Illustration by Crypto-Researcher at en.wikipedia.

2. Mothman

Mothman is the name given to a creature first seen in West Virginia in November of 1966. Several sightings were reported, in Clendenin, Point Pleasant, and Salem, of a flying creature that was six or seven feet tall and had eyes that glowed red in the dark. The press called the creature Mothman after a character on the Batman TV show. Within a year, over 100 sightings were reported in the area, and even more reports of just the red lights. Witnesses said the creature glided like a bat, but could elevate itself effortlessly. It could not talk, but screamed like an eagle. After 1967, the sightings grew less frequent and gradually died off. There are many possible explanations for the sightings, but nothing has been confirmed. Point Pleasant, West Virginia has a Mothman Festival every year. Illustration by Cathy Wilkins.

3. The Proctor Valley Monster

The Proctor Valley Monster seems like a tale told around a campfire, just right for a Hollywood B-movie. A teenage couple go parking in the woods off Proctor Valley Road, in the southeast corner of San Diego County in California. The car won't restart, or maybe they had a flat tire, and the boy gets out to investigate -but he doesn't come back. The girl stays inside, terrified because she hears scratching on the outside of the car. Police find her the next day, still hiding in the car. The boyfriend? He's dead, torn and bloody, dangling from a tree, while his hands brush the car, producing scratching noises. The story sometimes has mysterious huge footprints found nearby. The legend of the Proctor Valley Monster grew, and it is described as a 7-foot hairy humanoid a la Bigfoot, or sometimes a cow-like animal with its body parts in the wrong place. The Proctor Valley Monster is assumed to be responsible for livestock mutilation that occurs every now and then. The Bonita Museum in Chula Vista has a casting of a strange footprint alleged to be that of the monster. Photograph by Uma Sanghvi/Unon-Tribune.

4. Momo

Momo is short for Missouri Monster. The giant ape-like creature was reportedly seen in the area around Louisiana, Missouri since the 1940s, but sightings in the 1970s brought serious attention.

On the afternoon of July 11, 1972, 8-year-old Terry Harrison and his 5-year-old brother, Wally, were playing in their backyard at the foot of Marzolf Hill on the outskirts of Louisiana. Their older sister, Doris, was inside the house. Doris heard her brothers scream. She looked out the bathroom window and saw a black, hairy manlike creature, standing by a tree.

The thing appeared to be six or seven feet tall. Its head sat directly atop its shoulders, with no visible neck. The face was likewise invisible, completely covered by a mass of hair.

And the creature had a dead dog in its arms. Several local residents had also seen the creature, and footprints were found, which led to a search of the woods by a couple of dozen hunters. Most assumed the creature was a bear, but no bear was found. However, the searchers found dog bones, a bed of leaves that may have been used as a nest (which smelled horrible), and more footprints. Other sightings were reported, further and further away from the Missouri town of Louisiana. Along the way, the creature was associated with the Bigfoot legend. However, Momo is described as having a peculiarly big head, no neck, and a horrible smell that sickens people who encounter it. A low-budget film about Momo is in production (and has been for several years).

5. Jersey Devil

The Jersey Devil (also called the Leeds Devil) has a history going back 300 years in the Pine Barrens area of New Jersey. The legend says that in 1735, Mrs. Leeds cursed her 13th pregnancy, consigning her unwanted child to the devil. Then she forgot her actions, and gave birth to a boy who immediately after birth changed into a roaring demon! He grew quickly, sprouted wing, horns, and claws, and attacked and killed his mother and other family members. The demon escaped up the chimney and to the forest, where it was seen sporadically over the next couple of hundred years. Mostly, the reports told of horrible screams heard in the dark. When strange footprints were spotted in 1909, a panic ensued and schools were even closed due to low attendance. Many sightings were reported over the next week, including a woman who beat the creature with a broomstick as it attacked her dog. The Jersey Devil flies or runs away from these encounters. Sightings continue to this day, from people who find themselves in the spooky, mist-filled Pine Barrens at night. The creature is described as kangaroo-shaped, about four feet tall, with horns or antlers, claws on its forearms and hoofs on its back legs, and huge bat wings.

6. La Lechuza

Look Into My Eyes, I Will Turn You To Stone

Stories are told in Texas and Mexico of La Lechuza, which means "owl," but in this case refers to the "Witch Bird." She was once a woman, albeit one who practiced black magic. After her witchcraft was discovered, she was killed by angry neighbors. But she came back in the form of an human-size owl -with a woman's face! Her usual screams in the dark woods terrify people, but when she wants to lure someone to their doom, she will coo and cry like a baby. Then she'll carry the victim off in her claws to her nest, where she will eat them at her leisure. In other versions of the story, La Lechuza is a woman during the day, but by witchcraft turns into an owl at night. Photograph by Flickr user Stuart Richards.

7. Wendigo

Alternately spelled Windigo, as well as other variants, this monster comes to us from Algonquin folklore of Canada and the northern part of the U.S. The Wendigo is a large furry beast that eats people, but it has a more supernatural story than, say, Sasquatch. Described as a bipedal creature with big eyes and a very skinny body, it is said to be forever hungry. The spirit of the Wendigo can possess people and induce them to cannibalism. Some tales say that the creatures were once humans that became possessed and turned into the monsters. And if a human were to ever practice cannibalism, the act itself invites possession by a Wendigo. Wendigo psychosis was a term used to explain some rare cases of cannibalism long ago among the Algonquin people, possibly stemming from the belief that one is possessed by a Wendigo.

8. The Donkey Lady

The Donkey Lady is a legend in San Antonio, Texas. As the story goes, in the 1950s a woman was badly burned in a house fire. Her features were horribly disfigured and her fingers and toes burned off, leaving her hands and feet looking like hooves. Two of her children were killed in the fire, which drove the woman insane. She was banished from the town for her crazy rantings and went to live under a bridge, where she occasionally attacks and terrorizes passers-by. The old stone bridge where she lives (or haunts) is off Applewhite Road in south San Antonio.

9. Wampus Cat

Wild

The legend of the Wampus Cat is still told in the mountains of East Tennessee and western North Carolina. A long time ago, it is said, a Cherokee woman spied on her husband and the men of the tribe as they were away on a hunting trip and told sacred tales around the campfire that women weren't supposed to hear. She hid by wearing the skin of a wildcat, but was found by the tribesmen. The tribe's medicine man cursed her to always wear the skin of the cat, essentially turning her into a cat monster. She was doomed to roam the mountains, wailing for her lost humanity. Those who wander the mountains at night are very likely to hear those screams. A few sightings of the Wampus Cat claim the animal resembles a cougar but walks upright, with red glowing eyes and fangs that put other cougars to shame. Photograph by Flickr user Natalie Manuel.

10. Sasquatch

Undoubtedly the most familiar North American cryptid is Sasquatch, also known as Bigfoot. The Sasquatch Information Society keeps track of reported sightings, which come in constantly from all over Canada and the United States, but center mainly in the Pacific Northwest. Bigfoot is described as having the face of a gorilla, but the posture of a human. It is seven to nine feet tall and covered with long hair. Like some other cryptid apes, Sasquatch has an awful odor. Native Americans have legends of local apelike creatures going back many generations. The name Bigfoot was coined after huge footprints were found in 1958. Although many claims of evidence have been exposed as hoaxes, many people believe that it’s possible for a species of giant ape or hominid to reside in the wilderness areas.

There will be more monsters in this series, as I have a list of requested monsters to add. If there is one not yet covered you'd like to see, please let me know in the comments.

Read the entire series on Legendary Monsters.

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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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May 23, 2017
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