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7 Fascinating Local Characters

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In response to the post How to Be a Local Character, mental_floss readers contributed many names of characters who found fame in cities across the country and around the world. Some of these fascinating people have a strong presence on the internet, carrying their notoriety to a greater audience. Here are seven of them.

1. The Duck Lady

Ruthie the Duck Lady was Ruthie Grace Moulon of New Orleans, Louisiana. She was born in 1934, and after attending kindergarten, never went to school. Instead, she walked or roller-skated the streets of New Orleans followed by the ducks she raised. Ruthie's family helped create the persona of the Duck Girl and promoted her notoriety. She sold postcards of herself for a quarter or three for a dollar, never understanding why her pricing scheme didn't make sense. The Duck Lady was a regular at French Quarter bars beginning in the 50s. She met a sailor named Gary Moody who became a pen pal, although Moulon couldn't read or write. She considered herself engaged to Moody, and would sometimes wear a wedding gown on her bar rounds. Moulon had a large circle of friends who made sure she had a place to stay and her basic needs taken care of. The Duck Lady died on September 6th, 2008.

2. DJ Nitetrain


Boston, Massachusetts has DJ Nitetrain, who spins music, sometimes music only he can hear, as he entertains people on Boston's commuter trains. His real name is Jerry Holloman, born in 1964. His passions are riding trains and roller coasters. Holloman's dream is to someday take a cross-country train trip. See more at his MySpace page.

3. Blanket Man


Ben Hana of Wellington, New Zealand is better known as Blanket Man because he wears only a loincloth and a blanket. He has been a homeless resident of Wellington since 2001 and says his dress (or lack of it) is a religious gesture to the Māori sun god Tama-nui-te-rā. Hana has been arrested many times, often for marijuana possession. In late 2008, a judge ordered him to start wearing underpants after an arrest for indecent exposure. A documentary about Hana, Te Whanau O Aotearoa - Caretakers of the Land, is available online in four parts. Image by Jubalj.

4. Zanta


David Zancai is known to the citizens of Toronto, Ontario as Zanta. He does pushups wearing only shorts, boots, and a Santa Claus hat. In 2000, Zancai suffered injuries from a 25-foot fall. He spent time on life support and in a coma, then worked hard to build his body back up, mainly by doing pushups. He receives a disability check due to his injuries. Now he does thousands of pushups every day. He first wore a Santa Claus hat to amuse his daughter at a custody hearing, but Zancai was thrown out of court when he refused to remove the hat. See a documentary film called Zanta: The Movie. Image by Matt O'Sullivan.

5. Shaky Jake


Shaky Jake Woods was a busker in Ann Arbor, Michigan for 34 years. He wore a three-piece suit, hat, and dark sunglasses while playing guitar and telling tall tales on the downtown streets. Woods' guitar was often out of tune and the guitar had missing strings, but the people of Ann Arbor loved him. He received free breakfast from a local diner and often free lunch at various restaurants. Shaky Jake was 82 years old when he died in 2007. Watch a video about Shaky Jake.

6. Leslie Cochran


Leslie Cochran is the most famous local character in Austin, Texas. Cochran is a former truck driver from Florida who is now a cross-dresser and homeless advocate. He ran for mayor in 2000, when he collected almost 8% of the vote. His races in 2001 and 2003 were less successful. He can be seen around town wearing pantyhose and high heels. See more pictures at his MySpace page.

7. Radio


James Robert Kennedy is better known as Radio around Anderson, South Carolina -and the rest of the world, thanks to the 2003 movie about him, in which he is portrayed by Cuba Gooding, Jr. Kennedy was in an auto accident at age five that left him brain-damaged. He attended school at TL Hanna High School, but could not read or write. In fact, he is still attending at age 61. Kennedy developed a friendship with coach Harold Jones and the various athletic teams, who consider him good luck. Jones became a father figure to Kennedy, a relationship that continues after Jones' retirement. The school website has a page dedicated to Kennedy that says,

He has a permanent smile on his face. He is never without his ability to shake hands and hug necks. He returns exponentially whatever love is given to him. And here the irony rests. He gives back much more than he has received.

In 2005, the South Carolina General Assembly honored Kennedy and Jones with a resolution commending their inspirational lives.


This post was inspired by the news that Popcorn Sutton, the East Tennessee  moonshiner featured in the previous post, committed suicide on March 16th. He was to report to prison on the 20th. Speculation is that the sentence and his recent diagnosis of cancer led Sutton to fill his car with exhaust fumes which caused his death.

Other posts in this series:

How to Be a Local Character: 5 Basic Examples had characters from Memphis, New York City, St. Petersburg, FL, Lexington, KY, and Maggie Valley, NC.

9 Wonderful Local Characters featured folks from Atlanta, San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, St. Louis, St. Cloud, MN, and Adelaide, Australia.

7 More Unforgettable Local Characters has colorful characters from Peoria, IL, San Marcos, TX, New Haven, CT, Wheeling, WV, Ocean City, MD, Omaha, NB and Montreal.

6 of Your Favorite Local Characters profiles people you've seen in Seattle, Austin, Madison, WI, Jacksonville, NC, and one you are too young to have ever met from San Francisco.

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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.