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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
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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