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5 Roadside Attractions Worth a Stop

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While Disney World and the beach are fine vacations for some, I still prefer the great American roadtrip with all its quirky, unplanned side stops along the way. Click below for an interactive map version of the article, or read on to find out more on these classic roadside stops.

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1. House on the Rock

5754 Hwy 23, Spring Green, WI

The Wisconsin Dells area is full of tourist traps, with an unusually high number of water parks for an area with cold winters and enough cheese shops to satisfy an army of hungry mice. But an hour outside of the main part of the Dells in Spring Green, WI, is The House on the Rock, a monument to a disgruntled architect and the crazy collections held inside its walls.

After being told by Frank Lloyd Wright he wasn't fit to "design a cheese crate or a chicken coop," Alex Jordan, Sr., vowed to "put up a Japanese house on one of those pinnacle rocks" to show Wright what he thought of his opinion. His son, Alex, Jr., started construction in 1945; by 1961, the house had already become a must-see attraction in the Midwest.

Nowadays, the focus is not so much about the house as the contents held within it, and the rest of the additions that have been made to the house since it first opened. Starting in 1968, the house began to display the unusual collections of Jordan, which grew from one room in the house to the whole complex, which was sold to a family friend in 1988. The museum now contains massive collections of dolls, a giant carousel, a 200-ft. model of a whale, and the Infinity Room, a window-filled room which juts out 218 feet from the rock without supports, providing spectacular views of the Wisconsin countryside around it. The collection continues to grow, and the tour of the entire facility takes over 4 hours. [Earlier this year, Stacy Conradt paid the House on a Rock a visit. Check out her Armchair Field Trip.]

2. Wall Drug

510 Main St., Wall, SD
Wall Drug

Another long-standing Midwest tourist stop, Wall Drug is famous for the ubiquitous wooden signs advertising its free ice water and the many different attractions that have made it more than just an average shopping mall. Ted Hustead, a pharmacist from Nebraska, started Wall Drug as a drugstore, and the small store experienced low business until Ted's wife suggested advertising free ice water outside of town. After the first sign advertising the water was placed, visitors started increasing, and they've been busy ever since.

The crazy attractions didn't start, however, until Ted's son, Bill Hustead, took over the family business. Embarrassed since high school that all the ads were for a "small town store," Bill set out to make things interesting. Wall Drug now features a giant Apatosaurus visible from the highway, a fiberglass jackalope, a miniature Mount Rushmore, numerous animatronic creatures and bands, a pharmacy museum with a replica of the original Wall Drug, and numerous other attractions that have expanded Wall Drug from a small store to a complex spanning a couple city blocks that employs a third of the town of Wall, SD.

3. The Thing?

2631 N Johnson Rd, Dragoon, AZ
The Thing

This is what I think of when I picture a tourist trap--a place in the middle of nowhere, promising something you can't see anywhere else. 'The Thing?' has been showing visitors "The Mystery of the Desert" since 1950, and has remained in its current location just outside of X since 1965. The main building is your standard roadside "trading post" that sells jewelry and moccasins, but for a dollar's admission, you get to not only see The Thing?, but all that leads up to it. Three long, open-ended steel sheds are filled with a variety of odd displays and artifacts, and The Thing? awaits you at the third shed. It wouldn't be a tourist trap without a gift shop full of everything from Thing? t-shirts to Thing? bottled water. Whether The Thing? really contains a desert mystery or just a bunch of oddly-arranged junk is up to those to visit, but it still remains an interesting stop along the road.

4. Coral Castle

28655 S. Dixie Hwy, Homestead, FL
Coral Castle

An unusual monument to unrequited love, this "castle" of sorts also serves as a mystery of how it was created. Jilted by his bride at the altar, Ed Leedskalnin began to build something he thought would impress her. How an open-air compound with rock tables, chairs, and beds built over 20 years was supposed to woo her back to him is anyone's guess, but the mystery that remains to this day is this: how Ed was able to move the 2.2 million pounds of coral rock required when he was only around 100 pounds? Ed was as reclusive as he was creative, and reportedly worked only at night by lantern. He died in 1951, and since 1953, the castle has withstood hurricanes and other disasters.

5. Cadillac Ranch

I-40, Amarillo, TX, between exits 60 and 62
Cadillac Ranch

America seems to have no shortage of unusual stonehenge replicas, made of everything from limestone to refrigerators (perhaps that's another article--anyone interested in learning more?), but the Cadillac Ranch in Texas is a monument of a different sort. Ten Cadillacs are buried nose-first, facing in the direction of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The cars were installed as an art installation in 1974, and remained there until the growth of the nearby city forced the installation to move two miles down the road to its current location. The cars showcase the evolution of the Cadillac's design, with both the birth and the death of the car's signature tail fin represented in the lineup. As the original color of the cars have faded, graffiti has been added, and even encouraged by the original group.

The cars also have inspired various movies and songs. The Pixar film Cars featured rock formations shaped like the standing cars, and the film's main setting, Radiator Springs, was set just outside of an area marked "Cadillac Range" on the map. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song titled "Cadillac Ranch" on his 1980 album The River. Clearly these cars are more than creatively-arranged junkers.

Interested in checking these landmarks out, but worried by high gas prices? There's sure to be one closer to your area listed at RoadsideAmerica, an internet directory of touristy landmarks past and present.

Ben Smith is a former mental_floss intern. He currently attends the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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