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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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.