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11 Awesomely Unexpected Things in St. Louis’s City Museum

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It’s hard to describe St. Louis’s City Museum to people who haven’t been there, but calling it a giant playground is a good place to start. The 600,000 square foot building, formerly home to the International Shoe Factory, was purchased in 1995 by Bob Cassilly (who died last year while creating a new, similarly whimsical tourist attraction, Cementland). The classically-trained sculptor set out to make a funhouse for young and old out of unique, reclaimed objects found within the city’s municipal borders. Today, the museum accepts things from all over. “As we have grown we have had greater opportunities presented to us of stuff from outside St. Louis,” says museum director Rick Erwin III. “If you have something cool you want to give us, I’m not going to say no just because it’s not from St. Louis. Cool stuff is cool stuff.”

The museum space is based on repetition, solid lines, curves, and colors. "People will call and say, 'Hey, do you want a vacuum cleaner?'" Erwin says. "I'll say, 'No. Do you have a thousand vacuum cleaners? I'll take that. I want a lot of stuff!'" They hate dead ends and columns, and built a full-scale bowhead whale for their first floor. Because the museum is constantly finding things and accepting donations, the space is always growing and changing. The newest space is a series of tunnels underneath the building, a giant indoor treehouse, and a slide that goes into the museum's pump room. Erwin calls it "The Fungeon."

The collection includes cranes, old bridges, a human-sized hamster wheel, vintage opera posters, a room of preserved insects, a bank vault, a fish tank full of turtles (and one very friendly 39-pound catfish), and at least one alien dressed like Elvis in a coffin—all accessible via stairs, elevator, tunnel, or slide. (The museum also houses an aquarium and an old-fashioned shoelace-making facility.) "It was all Bob's idea," Erwin says. "People think I made him up." A sign outside reads: “The City Museum is full of creativity, adventure, and learning … and is fraught with DANGER. Enter at your own risk!”

So basically, it’s the coolest—and most entertaining—place on Earth. Here are just 11 of the many awesome things you’ll find at the City Museum.

1. The 10-Story Slide

The International Shoe Company didn’t have freight elevators, so workers sent shoes to different floors on chutes. “Workers would stop the shoes when they saw their size, switch shoes and then send their old shoes down,” Erwin says. Cassilly and company converted the chutes into a dizzyingly fun spiral slide that deposits visitors in the museum’s caves. (There's also a 5-story slide.)

2. Two Planes

“The story goes that we purchased them after the flood of 1993,” Erwin says. “One of them belonged to Wayne Newton.” Now, the planes are part of the museum's MonstroCity; visitors can crawl through a series of wire tubes and explore the interior of the planes.

3. Big Eli

This 30-foot-high Ferris wheel, which was manufactured in 1940, was found in a barn. "It used to be on a flatbed, so it's actually safer up here," Erwin says. Before it was put on the roof, it was fully restored.

4. A School Bus

To create the museum's exhibits, a team of artisans will often cut through the building’s floors or hoist objects up the side of the building—sometimes without permits, as they did with this school bus, donated by the Roxana School District, that overhangs the roof. "You can actually make it bounce," Erwin says. "It's on hydraulics. We spent a lot of money proving that it's safe." Also on top of the building: a giant praying mantis sculpture created by Cassilly; a pair of Beluga whale sculptures placed to look like they’re swimming; a dome with a rope swing; and a splash pond. (There were plans to put a water park on the roof—including a slide down the side of the building—but unfortunately the building couldn’t support the weight of the water.) Everything is constructed by the in-house team.

5. The World’s Largest Pencil …

This 76-plus foot, 21,500 pound No. 2 pencil was made and donated by Ashrita Furman, who is currently the world record holder of the most world records. It contains 4000 pounds of graphite and is the equivalent of 1,900,000 regular pencils. If you could lift it, you could write with it—and its 250 pound rubber eraser can do its job, too. "It took a crane to get this into the building," Erwin says. "It was in two pieces."

6. … And The Largest Pair of Underpants

These 7-foot-tall tighty-whiteys once went missing from the museum’s walls. "They just disappeared one day," Erwin says. "We vowed that we would go commando until they showed up." They reappeared 3.5 weeks later, freshly laundered.

7. Fiberglass

Those things that look like icicles hanging from the City’s first floor ceiling? It’s actually fiberglass donated by Boeing. "It's the same stuff you wrap around the outside of an airplane," Erwin says.

8. Cooling Tube

This cooling tube, located on the museums's first floor, came from St. Louis-based brewery Anheuser-Busch. "It used to be inside the beer [tank], to keep the beer cold," Erwin says. Now, visitors can climb up it to other floors of the museum.

9. The Puking Pig


This is a boiler expansion tank, with the face of a pig, that’s bolted to the back end of a 1899 fire truck. Every 90 seconds, the tank fills with water and tips—which makes the pig look like it’s puking.

10. Pipe Organ

This organ was built in 1924 for the Rivoli Theater in New York City. It's been fully restored and is now operated with an electronic console.

11. Cross

This cross came from the east wing of the Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis. That's where, in the 1940s, the exorcism that inspired the novel and film The Exorcist took place. "The story goes that during the exorcism, the cross was struck by lightning," Erwin says. "This became very famous in the last year or so. People want to sleep under it. It's a little weird."

BONUS! Stuff they have that’s not on display … yet.

The Museum is constantly expanding and tweaking its space as it gets new stuff. Currently, the world's largest tennis racket—also built by Furman, it measures 50 feet, 3.01 inches long by 16 feet, 8.6 inches wide—is sitting in storage, just waiting for a place in the museum. And there's more: Various cast iron store fronts from St. Louis, thousands of glass bottles, 50,000 paver bricks, a merry-go-round, an airplane, neon signs, corbels from Chicago Union Passenger Depot, and, says Erwin, "so much terra cotta that we could build an addition."

Have you been to the City Museum? If so, what's your favorite part? What cool treasures did we leave out?

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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