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Curious, Bizarre & Storied State Symbols

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Almost everyone knows that each state of the Union has its own flag. State flags, however, are just the most visible elements of an elaborate, esoteric system of legalized symbols that characterize and codify our united states. For example, "Do You Realize??" by the Flaming Lips was just named the official Oklahoma State Rock Song. It's time we were all exposed to the bizarre symbology of state identity-politics.

A Lesser-Known Tale of Badgers and Suckers

To begin with, some of the most well-known state symbols allude to lesser-known meanings and histories. I grew up in Wisconsin and only recently learned that the Badger State title originally refers not to Bucky, nor to the savage beast itself, but to lead miners in the 1820s and 30s. These miners moved from prospect to prospect in southwestern Wisconsin, traveling light and often, with little money for luxury. When winter came and conditions worsened, those miners too far from home to migrate would dig themselves sheltering caves in the hills -- like badgers. These temporary dwellings could be abandoned if a prospect proved fruitless, without much regret; and if the lead pickings were good, the lucky miner could fluff up his badger hole or upgrade to a more traditional Euro-American residence. For this practice Wisconsin miners were dubbed "badgers" -- a jibe that was soon appropriated as a proud, statewide nickname. Bucky didn't come along until 1949; the furry, quadruped badger, notoriously vicious when cornered, wasn't declared Wisconsin's state animal until 1957.

Other miners migrated south for the winter to the far end of Illinois, much like the region's sucker fish; which earned them the nickname of Suckers, and their state of Illinois its unenviable nickname, The Sucker State.

The Rebel Woodpecker

alabama-bird.jpgThe state bird of Alabama has another tale behind it. They honor a little woodpecker they call the yellowhammer, which is known outside of Alabama as the northern flicker, the common flicker, or simply The Flicker. (It eats a lot of ants, and is not to be confused with the yellowhammer bunting of Europe and New Zealand.) State birds are chosen for reasons many and varied, some meaningful and others frivolous -- from the pretty songs they sing to their proximity to extinction -- and I believe this is the only bird singled out for its resemblance to Confederate uniforms. The story goes that a clean, trim, flashy bunch of new Confederate recruits one day passed by a weary, bedraggled, dusty pod of veterans, and their fresh uniforms, grey tinged with brilliant yellow, reminded some jokester vet of the woodpecker, so he let out a mocking call: "Yallerhammer, yallerhammer, flicker, flicker!" The jeer stuck, and the recruits were soon labeled the Yellowhammer Company. Later, as these things go, all Alabama troops were known as Yellowhammers, the whole state as the Yellowhammer State, and Confederate veterans developed a habit of wearing yellow feathers in their caps and lapels to dress up for post-war reunions.

How entertaining and informative. But the real fun starts when these state symbols more shamelessly approach the ridiculous. Let us consider some of the finest specimens:

Eat and Drink to the Honor of the State

Kool-Aid.jpgMost states have at least one form of official food. In Louisiana, the official doughnut is the beignet. (I'm unaware of any other state doughnuts -- and I'm disappointed.) New York's official muffin is made with apples; Minnesota's with blueberries; and none have yet found it fit to honor the vegan bran and raisin muffin, despite whatever strange wonders it works on the abdominal tubing. Vermont is the only state with an official flavor: maple, as in maple syrup -- but because they've designated the "flavor," not the "syrup," we can assume the appointment includes everything from maple-glaze for ham to autumnal maple lattes. Shockingly, Oklahoma has recognized a complete (and daunting) meal: fried okra, squash, cornbread, barbeque pork, biscuits, sausage and gravy, grits, corn, chicken friend steak, black-eyed peas, strawberries, and pecan pies. As for state drinks, Nebraska has Kool-Aid, Indiana has water (hubris!), and Alabama, the standout, has Conecuh Ridge Alabama Fine Whiskey -- a re-creation of some well-regarded illegal moonshine made in the backwoods by a man named Clyde May.

The Silly, Sentimental, and Insulting Songs that Define Us

hang-on-sloopy.jpgAll states have songs, too, except New Jersey, where good cheer goes to die. Most states have more than one. There are state ballads, state marches, state waltzes, and so on. Connecticut has a state cantata (a narrative piece intermixed with solos and choruses); Louisiana has a state environmental song ("The Gifts of the Earth"); Massachusetts a polka ("Say Hello to Someone from Massachusetts"); a couple states have lullabies; and Ohio has an official rock song, "Hang On Sloopy." Two state anthems, Maryland's and Iowa's, are set to the familiar tune of "O Tannenbaum!", or "O Christmas Tree!"; but no states have designated official Christmas songs. And despite Texas' toughboy image (their official footwear is the cowboy boot), it's the only state with an official flower song -- in praise of its state flower, the bluebonnet. Many of the traditional states songs are brazenly effusive. Arizona's begins, "I love you, Arizona," and continues, rather romantically, "You're the magic in me." California's is similar, without the magic: "I love you, California, you're the greatest state of all." South Dakotans use the superlative when singing to "The state we love the best."

Usually they're just hilarious, but a few of these songs bear some heinously outdated lyrics. With a nod to the old Eternal Feminine, North Carolina praises its women as Queens of the Forest, "So graceful, so constant, yet to gentlest breath trembling." The real trouble comes, though, with old minstrel tunes that portray humble "darkies" praising "old Massa" in song and romanticizing their cotton-picking servitude. Kentucky changed the language for "My Old Kentucky Home" in 1986 to glaze over such indiscretions. But Virginia still seems to have trouble acknowledging its error, and simply demoted its song, "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny," to the status of "state song emeritus." Virginia still seeks an adequate replacement, preferably one that doesn't idealize slavery -- but, of course, those are hard to come by.

Every State For Itself

gusty.jpgBesides these strange variations on common themes, many states have even more idiosyncratic symbols. Since 1962, the official sport of Maryland has been jousting, and more recently, the state's official "exercise" was declared to be walking. Not even mall-walking or speed-walking -- just "walking." Kentucky doesn't have a "sport," but it does have an official tug-of-war: the Fordsville Tug-of-War Championship. Mississippi has a state toy, the teddy bear; Massachusetts a state bean, the navy bean; and Oklahoma proudly boasts the only state cartoon character, a gust of wind named Gusty that was used to report weather and news, between 1954 and 1989. (You can order commemorative Gusty artwork here.)

While many designations seem absurd, most aim to represent some definite aspect of a state's intended "character." Legislators want icons that mean something, that give you a sense of the land and its people -- something like the bolo tie. Arizona named the bolo tie its official neckwear back in 1971. And more recently, in 2007, New Mexico added the same to its list of emblems. Apparently, it was an Arizona silversmith who invented the string-and-buckle necktie when he took off his hatband to avoid losing the precious buckle during a high-wind horse ride, and hung it around his neck. This discovery occurred as late as 1940, but the bolo's become such an icon that it's hard to imagine a Wild West without it.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.