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The Quick 10: 10 Facts About Amusement Parks

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With the long Fourth of July weekend coming up, I bet at least some of our _flossy readers are headed to an amusement park to celebrate with roller coasters, cotton candy and water slides. So to give you some food for thought while you're waiting to ride the Scrambler, here are a few random facts about the parks that keep us entertained.

worlds1. The word "fun" is used in more amusement park names than any other descriptor, at least according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (and if anyone knows, they would). Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun are the first ones that come to mind for me.
2. Cary Grant was a stilt-walker at Coney Island's Steeplechase Park for a while in the "˜20s. He learned the skill while touring with a vaudeville-style troupe in England; he also learned how to dance and tumble.

3. Disney World was nearly located in St. Louis, Missouri, which would have been awesome for me. But legend has it that August Busch, Jr., of Anheuser Busch, ruined it for me. Supposedly when he heard of Disney's plans for a family-oriented park with no alcohol readily available for tired parents, he ridiculed Walt and said it was the dumbest thing he had ever heard. Walt shrugged and decided that maybe St. Louis didn't want his business. Now, this is just a story. There are lots of reasons Florida was chosen to host Disney World instead of St. Louis, but you have to admit this one is more fun.

4. If a sex-themed amusement park sounds a little off-kilter to you, you're not the only one: just last month, China shut down "Love Land," a theme park with demonstrations, naked sculptures and enormous replicas of genitals, and a display about the history of sex. The park hadn't even opened yet when it was mysteriously demolished over the course of a weekend in May.

hershey5. Hershey Park in Pennsylvania started out as picnic grounds for employees in the early 1900s. Because of its spaciousness and electricity in a time when a lot of rural places in Pennsylvania still lacked electricity, people who weren't affiliated with Hershey started to rent it out for events. The first ride opened in 1908 "“ a small, used carousel "“ and by 1910 it had amphitheaters, a baseball field, two bowling alleys, a swimming pool, a zoo and even a miniature railroad.

6. Dollywood had a different owner before Dolly took it over "“ then-Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell. At that time, the park was known as Goldrush Junction and was advertised as "Tennessee's Million Dollar Fun Attraction" (as opposed to Tennessee's Million Dollar Melancholy Attraction"¦?).

7. Tivoli Gardens in Denmark is one of the oldest operating amusement parks in the world. It opened in 1843 and is reportedly one of Walt Disney's inspirations for his parks. The park's first proprietor, Georg Carstensen, got permission from King Christian VIII to build the park by saying, "When the people are amusing themselves, they do not think about politics."

santa8. Santa Claus Land in Santa Claus, Indiana, might be the first-ever theme park. It really depends on your definition of "theme park," but it's largely considered to be the first park ever that had some sort of recurring motif instead of just a jumble of randomly assorted rides and attractions. And, as you may have inferred from its name, "Santa Claus" was the theme. Even so, it was only open from May to October. These days it's called Holiday World and it celebrates not Christmas, but also the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Halloween.
9. Carowinds theme park is located in North Carolina and South Carolina: it sits right across the state line. The name is a combination of "Carolina winds."
10. SeaWorld started out as a marine-themed restaurant with a show. Four fraternity brothers got together to build the attraction in the early "˜60s, but when it proved to be too financially unsound, they changed course and decided to build a theme park instead.

What's your favorite theme park? If I exclude Disney, I have to say my favorite is Worlds of Fun. I never have been a big fan of Six Flags. Of course, when Universal's The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opens next year, I might be changing my tune.

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