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9 Legendary Monsters of North America: Part Three

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This is the third installment of legendary monsters of North America, as everyone has their local favorite -or has even seen one of these creatures! Previous posts have legends of other parts of the world, too. Here are more monsters from the stories told around the campfires -and on the internet- in North America.

1. Lee County Lizardman

In 1988, 17-year-old Christopher Davis reported the first sighting of the Lee County Lizard Man. Davis was driving home from work, and had to stop about 2AM near Scape Ore Swamp in South Carolina to change a flat tire. As he was leaving, a 7-foot-tall bipedal creature ran up and jumped on his car! Davis said it had glowing red eyes, green skin, and three clawed fingers on each hand. Davis swerved to throw the monster off, and later found scratch marks on his car. After his tale was told, others came forward with accounts of the creature, and some had auto damage as well. Footprints were found, but were never sent for analysis. Davis took a lie detector test (arranged by his publicity agents), but the results were not released. Stories went nationwide, and tourists came to look for the Lizard Man, but the hubbub died down by the end of the summer of 1988. There are occasional sightings to this day.

2. Tahoe Tessie

Lake Tahoe is an extremely deep lake in the mountains along the border of California and Nevada. Every year there are several sightings of a monster known as Tahoe Tessie. Reports of the monster go back to Washoe and Paiute legends before the West was settled. Tessie is described as serpentine, which puts her in the same class as Champ in Lake Champlain, Mussie in Muskrat Lake, Chessie in Chesapeake Bay, and other lake monsters. Photograph by Wikipedia user Sierranevadaart.

3. Beavershark

The Beavershark (Maximus bitemus) lives in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Or Pine Mountain, Georgia. Or Maryland. Or South Carolina, depending on where you happen to visit. This creature is three to four feet long, and comes in two varieties: one has the head of a shark and the body of a beaver, the other has the head of a beaver and the body of a shark. You can guess that the former is the more dangerous subspecies. The beaver shark's preferred environments are youth summer camps, especially those with boating classes. However, they also live near tourist destinations and are sometimes found in gift shops.

4. The Beast of Busco

This is a Snapping Turtle

The town of Churubusco, Indiana, is called Turtletown due to the obsession with a snapping turtle called the Beast of Busco, which locals just call Oscar. The first reported sighting of the giant turtle was in 1898, by farmer Oscar Fulk. No one else saw the turtle then, but Oscar owes his name to the farmer. Then in 1948, the turtle was seen again, in Fulk Lake. One of several people who reported the giant turtle was the owner of Fulk Lake, Gale Harris, who vowed to find the monster. Witnesses said the shell was as big as the roof of a car! Newspapers picked up the story nationwide, and Churubusco found itself on the map. People came from all over, and on one day alone, 3,000 tourists joined in the search on Harris' farm. No giant turtle was found, but the turtle the newspapers called Oscar is credited with boosting the town's economy, and you'll find artful turtles decorating Churubusco to this day. Churubusco has an annual festival called Turtle Days. Photograph by Flickr user Andy Simonds.

5. Tree Octopus

The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus (Octopus paxarbolis) is an amphibious creature native to the Olympic National Forest in Washington State. They are very elusive and difficult to catch, but predatory birds eat them and have greatly diminished their numbers. The octopus is an endangered species, with an organization devoted to its survival. The site has been used in studies to determine how easily people believe what they see on the internet.

6. The Fouke Monster

The Fouke Monster is named after the town of Fouke, Arkansas. Sightings have been reported since the 1940s, with a whole slew of sightings between 1970 and 1974. The Fouke Monster is a 7 to 10 foot tall ape-man with long shaggy hair and bright red eyes. It also has a foul odor. An attack on Bobby and Elizabeth Ford in 1971 sparked a frenzy of monster hunting. Three-toed footprints were found around the area, but later exposed as a hoax. The attack by an unknown animal on the Ford family inspired a movie entitled The Legend of Boggy Creek. The 1972 movie is available at YouTube.

7. Piasa Bird

In 1673, a giant pictograph was spotted on the cliffs near Alton, Illinois. The Native American painting depicted a creature described as a dragon bird. If locals were asked about the picture, their answers were not recorded. The bird became known as the Piasa Bird, after a nearby place by that name was documented on a 1797 French map. Other sightings were described, but the image itself was destroyed in the 1870s when lime was quarried there. The story behind the creature is unknown, but there is speculation that it may have been painted by Cahokians, a society that flourished along the Mississippi River, peaking around 1200 CE. An account was publish in 1836 by John Russell that wove a story about the bird that lived on the cliffs and ate people, but most historians presume that he made the tale up. We don't even know for sure what the pictogram looked like, as no photographs are known to exist, and contemporary sketches have been lost -but not before they were copied by hand. These copies were used to recreate the painting on a cliff not far from the original site. Photograph by Wikipedia user Burfalcy.

8. The Melon Heads of Kirtland

Kirtland, Ohio, is a suburb of Cleveland. The story of the Melon Heads has been told for generations. A doctor named Crowe ran a facility in the 1800s (as the story goes) where he kept 1. hydrocephalic children, or 2. unwanted children used as experimental subjects, in which he injected them with a substance that made their heads swell. In some versions of the story, the government funded these experiments. In any case, Dr. Crowe either died or was killed when his charges rebelled against him, and they ran out into the woods, where they still live today (or they are the ghosts of children killed when the orphanage burned). The Melon Heads are short and have big round heads. Sometimes the story is set in more recent times, with the addition of "someone who knew Dr. Crowe." The Melon Heads stay near the wooded area of Wisner Road, where teenagers often go to look for them on dark nights, possibly as an excuse to wrap their arms around each other in fear. There are similar legends of Melon Heads in several other states.

9. Fur-bearing Trout

Fur-bearing trout are native to Montana and surrounding states, and in some regions of Canada. They developed fur to keep their bodies warm in the cold northern streams where they live. However, another theory exists that the fur is the result of "four jugs of hair tonic" that were accidentally spilled into the Arkansas River in the 1870s. A third explanation comes from 17th-century Scottish settlers:

One settler wrote home remarking about the abundance of "furried animals and fish" in the new land. Asked to provide more information about the furried fish, he duly sent home a specimen.

Fur-bearing trout pose no danger, and in fact have been overfished and are near extinction, although they can be seen in taxidermy shops on occasion. The same species is also sometimes called beaver trout.

Previously: Legendary monsters of Asia, Europe, Australasia, Africa, North America, and South America.

Read the entire series on Legendary Monsters.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]