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3 Dearly Departed Amusement Parks

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When Six Flags filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Saturday, everyone who enjoys a good rollercoaster probably cringed. While Six Flags' executives are assuring patrons that their parks will remain open during their tough economic times, it's still no fun thinking that all of those six-dollar sodas we've been buying over the years couldn't keep the place solvent.

At least for now, though, Six Flags won't join the list of dearly departed theme parks that for one reason or another couldn't hack it and are now in the amusement graveyard. Let's take a look at some of the ones that weren't so lucky.

1. Action Park

AP.jpgSure, modern amusement parks are fun, but where's the danger? It wasn't missing at New Jersey's infamous/beloved Action Park, which entertained and injured locals in Vernon Township, New Jersey, from 1978 to 1996. When the park opened, it was mostly swimming pools and water slides, but over time more complex water attractions, go-karts, and rides were added.

Sounds fun, right? It would have been if not for how dangerous the park was. The staff was often young and inattentive, and injuries and fatalities (yes, fatalities) started piling up. The giant waves in the wave pool (nicknamed the "Grave Pool") drowned a few patrons, but the park was perhaps best known for its looping water slide.


The enclosed waterslide ended with a total vertical loop. If this setup sounds like a terrible idea, that's because it was. If the rider lacked the speed or the water pressure to make it all the way through the loop, an injury was inevitable. Patrons got nosebleeds, back injuries, or stuck at the top of the loop.

Park staff later claimed that they were offered a hundred bucks a pop to try to the slide, but refused after seeing that test dummies often emerged on the other end dismembered. The looping slide was actually closed down for most of the park's life due to these injury concerns.

In 1996, with a total body count of six fatalities and countless injuries, the park had to close down due to its inability to cover the exorbitant insurance premiums its dangerous rides required. However, many of the rides still exist in safer, renovated form as Mountain Creek Waterpark.

2. Dogpatch USA

Younger readers might not be familiar with Al Capp's comic strip Li'l Abner, but it basically chronicled the hilarious lives of a family of goodhearted hillbillies in Dogpatch, Kentucky. The strip ran for 43 years and at its peak had millions of readers.

dogpatch-usa.jpgFor some reason, in 1966 real estate developer O.J. Snow decided that Li'l Abner and the gang would be the perfect subject for an amusement park, and he enlisted partners to help build a replica of Dogpatch in the Ozark Mountains near Jasper, Arkansas. In order to secure the Li'l Abner license from Al Capp, Snow had to assure the strip's creator that he wouldn't include any thrill rides in the park, so it mostly consisted of Li'l Abner characters strolling around, paddleboat rides, train rides, and the like.

After Snow and his partners spent over a million dollars getting the park up and running for its 1968 opening, the park turned a tidy profit in its first year. After that, however, some pretty big cracks emerged in Dogpatch USA's underlying concept. First, while Li'l Abner was a fairly lighthearted look at mountain culture, Arkansans couldn't help but realize that going to a hillbilly-themed park was like paying to be mocked. "Ha! Look at how quaint and funny you mountain folk are!" didn't exactly make the locals break out their wallets. On top of that, for all of the Natural State's charms, Arkansas isn't a huge tourist destination, so the park couldn't piggyback off of the region's success at pulling in tourists. For reasons like these, nobody came to Dogpatch USA. The park had hoped to draw 1.2 million visitors a year within its first nine seasons of operation; the most it ever drew was 300,000 in its inaugural year.

Over the next 24 years, the park changed hands several times, added roller coasters, and shifted focus towards theater attractions, but nothing could lure in patrons. In 1993 the park closed for good, and now it sits abandoned on State Highway 7 with trees and weeds growing around the old rides and attractions.

3. Opryland USA

When I was growing up about an hour north of Nashville, the promise of a trip to Opryland could coerce my younger brother and me into doing pretty much anything. The country-music-themed park opened in Nashville in 1972 and offered traditional rides like roller coasters as well as live country music revues. The park quickly established a brisk business and pulled in over two million guests per year. In 1977, the Opryland Hotel opened, and the sprawling inn has since become the largest non-casino hotel in the world.

opryland-usa.jpgOver time, though, the park ran into a problem: it was out of room to expand. Because its triangular footprint wedged between the Cumberland River, the Opryland Hotel, and a major parkway, the park was pretty much stuck at one size. Gaylord, the park's owners, decided to shutter the park, sell off the rides, and built the gigantic Opry Mills mall on the site.

Although the park disappeared, not all of the rides shared its fate. As is fairly common in these cases, management sold some of the nicer roller coasters to other parks. Today the Hangman operates as Kong at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, and the Rock "˜n' Roller Coaster found new life as the Canyon Blaster at New York's The Great Escape.
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Do you have a favorite departed amusement park or have any tales of your own gruesome injuries from Action Park?

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]