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Armchair Field Trip: House on the Rock (read at your own risk)

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Wow. So I visited the House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wis., this weekend and it was easily the most frightening place I've ever been. And I only saw part of it. I guess I don't know what I was expecting"¦ Spring Green is the home of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin, so I suppose I was thinking of something more along those lines "“ a really architecturally interesting house. And I guess it was. But the architecture is overpowered by the enormous, bizarre collection of crap within its walls. My friend Mikaela described it as "a garage sale held by mental patients." It's a pretty fair assessment, except the stuff isn't for sale.

This is a hard article to write because it's difficult to describe exactly how horrifying, creepy and bizarre this place is. I can tell you all I want and be as descriptive as humanly possible and show you any number of pictures, and still it's not going to adequately portray the Creepy. But I will try.

First of all, you can take Tour 1, Tour 2, or the whole experience. We opted for Tour 1 because it contained "The Infinity Room" and we had been told this was not a room to miss. For your reference, though, Tour two contains the Music of Yesterday, the Spirit of Aviation, the World's Largest Carousel, the Organ Room, Inspiration Point and the Doll Carousels. Holy Crap, am I glad we picked Tour 1, because the Doll Carousels would have scarred me for life.

I'll combine the official descriptions with my descriptions"¦ I bet you can pick out which is which.

House on the Rock: House on the Rock sits atop a 60-foot chimney of rock called Deer Shelter Rock. It opened in 1960, where it has been terrifying the unsuspecting public ever since. This part of the house feels like a hobbit-hole - imagine rock ledges made into couches"¦ couches upholstered in shag carpet. Furnishings include oriental art, stained glass, bronze statuary, numerous Bauer and Coble lamps and a three-story bookcase filled with rare books. They don't warn you about instruments that play eerie tunes all by themselves and the random statues strategically placed to scare the crap out of you when you round a corner. The Infinity Room, the 14th room of the house, opened in 1985. This unique room projects out over the Wyoming Valley 218 feet and contains 3,264 windows. This room was cool until my friend Courtney jumped out at the far end and made the whole thing shake. I almost peed my pants. The top is the interior and the bottom is what it looks like from the outside.


The Gate House and the Mill House: Opening in 1961 and 1968 respectively, you will find all kinds of random crap in these wings of the house, including antique guns, dolls, mechanical banks, suits of armor and an enormous fireplace. Notice the giant bellows used as a display for an extensive paperweight collection. For your convenience, restrooms are located in this area. This is the restroom and my friend Lisa:


This is some of the random "décor" in the Mill House. Why, I ask you, why?? Why all of the instruments that play themselves? I don't understand!!instruments

Oh, and this little gem was really disturbing. There are all kinds of machines that require you to insert a token to get them to work. We inserted a token into this machine called something like "The Death of a Drunkard" and this is what happened "“ first the drunk guy dying in bed raises his arms like a zombie. Then death pops up from behind the bed doing his best "TOUCHDOWN!" pose. Then a skeleton reveals that he's been hiding in the grandfather clock. Finally, we see that the drunkard's closet is actually a gateway to hell and the Devil arrives to pull him down into it. OH MY GOD.


The tour continues into the Streets of Yesterday, which opened in 1971. It is a recreation if a typical 19th century main street where you can enjoy things such as opium, worm cakes, tapeworms and dolls. Lots and lots of dolls. You wouldn't want to be trapped in here at night.dolls

You will notice the lighting is dim in this area as it portrays an evening setting and casts everything in an extra-eerie light. As you go through this section, please view both sides of the room until you get to the Gladiator Calliope, the first of many large Music Machines. Once you get there, you will exit this area to your left and enter the Heritage of the Sea. If you haven't visited the restroom yet, we suggest you do so, because if your bowels are full when you enter the Heritage of the Sea, you will crap your pants.

The Heritage of the Sea opened in 1990. As you enter this area, your eyes are drawn to the 200 ft sea creature that is engaged in a titanic struggle with an enormous octopus. Yes, you read that right, a "200 ft sea creature engaged in a titanic struggle with an enormous octopus". It's really pretty impossible to get a picture of the titanic struggle, but believe me, I tried. I have an abnormal amount of pictures of this battle on my camera right now.


The nice thing is that you follow a winding path up to the top of the building, so eventually you find yourself right in front of the mouth of the sea monster! Neat!!


That concludes Tour 1. Thank God. By this point, we had witnessed so many strange things and been inundated by weird music and noises, we were pretty much silent. Courtney was actually sick to her stomach. I think I developed a headache just writing about this. I should probably go lie down now.But before I go, let's hear from you. Have you been to the House on the Rock? Am I misunderstanding its genius? Or were you just as traumatized as I was? Should you feel the need to further deluge yourself with scary pictures, you can visit my blog or check out these pictures.

Previously on mental_floss...

"¢ Stacy's visits to The Corn Palace, The Grassy Knoll, The Texas State Fair and The Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast
"¢ Jason's trips to Old Faithful (not that Old Faithful) and Utah
"¢ Ransom's honeymoon in Portugal

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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]