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9 Towns That Changed Their Names (And 4 That Almost Did)

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In March 2010, the city of Topeka, Kansas, unofficially changed its name to Google for a month in an effort to curry favor with the tech giant, which was then looking for markets in which to test its new fiber-optic technology. It wasn't the first time the midwestern town had rebranded itself, either: 1998, the capital city temporarily changed its name to ToPikachu to commemorate Pokémon's debut in the United States.

As extreme as the measure seems, Topeka isn't the only city that has played the name game in order to drum up publicity. Here are nine other towns that changed their names—plus four that considered the idea.

1. Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
 

Ten years after welcoming the first contestant—a sailor who played the role of a grocery clerk with a lollipop in his mouth—on Truth or Consequences, host Ralph Edwards promised to broadcast an episode from the first town to rename itself after his popular radio and television show. Residents of the resort town of Hot Springs, New Mexico, voted 1,294-295 to make the change in 1950, and Edwards, who later created and hosted NBC's This Is Your Life, visited Truth or Consequences every year until 1999. Edwards died in 2005, but his legacy lives on in the form of Ralph Edwards Park and a celebration in the city of 7,000 every May.

2. McGillicuddy City, North Dakota

The 250 residents of Granville, North Dakota, were more than happy to temporarily change their town's name in 1998. The $100,000 that the farming community received over the next four years from Sazerac Co., a New Orleans-based distributor of Dr. McGillicuddy's mint schnapps, helped finance a new community center. "These small towns, they don't have a lot going for them," one resident, whose grandparents were among Granville's original homesteaders, said. "You just take what you can get."

Granville was chosen as the winner of Sazerac's nationwide search for a snow-covered small town that could help promote the McGillicuddy brand. As part of the deal, Granville agreed to rename its bar the Shady Eye Saloon, the name of the fictional Dr. McGillicuddy's favorite watering hole. "Yeah, we took some flak from people, that this was the town that changed its name for money," another resident said. "But we're still Granville on the map." Indeed, the town's post office and schools kept the Granville name.

3. Joe, Montana

After the Chiefs acquired longtime San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana in 1993, a Kansas City radio station commemorated Joe Cool's arrival by convincing the smallest incorporated town in Montana to change its name to Joe for the duration of the football season. The residents of Ismay—a town named after two sisters, Isabelle and Maybelle—voted 21-0 in favor of the change. "It would have been 22-0, but one of our voters was out of town," town clerk Wayne Rieger said. In addition to receiving national attention, Ismay's residents were flown to Kansas City to see the Chiefs play the Bengals.

4. DISH, Texas

The two-member town council of Clark, Texas, approved a deal to rename the town DISH after EchoStar Communication Corp.'s satellite TV system in 2005. As part of the deal, DISH's 125 residents were promised free satellite television for a decade. Clark mayor Bill Merritt courted EchoStar after defeating Landis Clark, the man for whom the town was originally named, in the 2005 mayoral election. "We really look at this as kind of a rebirth for our community," Merritt told reporters. "We want everybody to come here." So, did they? DISH's population was 201 in 2010, according to the United States Census Bureau.

5. half.com, Oregon

In 2000, officials in Halfway, Oregon, agreed to change the town's name to half.com for one year in exchange for 20 computers and other financial perks. "We literally put the brand on the map," said half.com's vice president and marketer Mark Hughes. Shortly after the town of 300 unveiled signs promoting the Internet startup's name, eBay purchased half.com for $300 million.

6. SecretSanta.com, Idaho

Hughes helped orchestrate another match between a dot-com and an aptly named town in 2005. The Water and Sewer District in Santa, Idaho, voted to change its name to SecretSanta.com for one year and erected signs promoting the online gift exchange manager in return for at least $20,000. The town post office, which fields letters from children every Christmas, was allowed to keep its name.

7. Sleepy Hollow, New York
 

In 1996, the residents of North Tarrytown, New York, voted to change the town's name to Sleepy Hollow. Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was set in Tarry Town, and Irving is buried in the town's cemetery.

8. Bikinis, Texas

In 2012, business owner Doug Guller purchased parts of the abandoned ghost town of Bakersmith, announcing his plans to name it for his Bikinis Sports Bar and Grill Chain where—not surprisingly—waitresses wear two-piece bathing suits. An opening day event hosted by Baywatch alumna Carmen Electra drew massive crowds—and also upset residents of the neighboring Fredericksburg. In order to preserve Bikinis' relationship with Fredericksburgers, Guller reverted to the town's original moniker in June.

9. Hill Valley, Kansas

In celebration of the 30th anniversary of Back to the Future, for 24 hour-period starting on July 3, the town of Augusta, Kansas became Hill Valley by proclamation of Mayor Matt Childers. "Hill Valley" also hosted a day-long festival—complete with a cookout, a screening of all three films, and, naturally, a Marty McFly-lookalike contest.

4 Towns That Kept Their Original Names

1. Ferrysburg, Michigan

Tired of being the brunt of jokes about their town's name, officials in Ferrysburg, Michigan, proposed a name change in 1986. "When someone says, "˜I'm from Ferrysburg,' it causes chuckles," mayor Leon Stille told reporters. "Some people even refer to the mayor and council as the leading fairies. It does become an irritant." As part of a routine that likely wouldn't fly today, comedian Bob Hope mocked the town's name during a 1981 visit to nearby Grand Rapids for the opening of the Gerald R. Ford Museum, saying it was the only place in America where you can be halfway between Ferrysburg and Fruitport. But residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of keeping Ferrysburg, which was named after the brothers who first mapped the area in 1857.

2. Sharer, Kentucky

Hoping to capitalize on the same sort of publicity that half.com garnered five years earlier, PokerShare.com reportedly offered the town of Sharer, Kentucky, $100,000 to change its name in 2000. Sharer officials declined. "When you talk about poker and gambling, we're not for that in our county," a Butler County official said. "It's very conservative."

3. White Settlement, Texas

In 2005, the mayor and members of the chamber of commerce of White Settlement, Texas, asked voters to approve a name change to something less controversial in an effort to lure more businesses to the town of 15,000. The proposal angered many in the town near Ft. Worth, and the measure was defeated by a 9-to-1 margin. "Why don't they go ahead and change the name of the White House to the West House?" former White Settlement councilman Alan Price said. "It's all a bunch of poppycock," Wendell Sowards, 72, told The New York Times. "We don't have any racial problems; we just like our name." Some residents were so opposed to the proposal that they attempted to oust the mayor through a recall process. According to the town's website, White Settlement traces its name to the 1840s, when a community of white settlers occupied an area surrounded by several Native American villages.

4. Strasburg, Virginia

During the week leading up to Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg's major league debut in 2010, news of a proposed resolution to change the name of the small Virginia town of Strasburg to Stephen Strasburg was widely circulated. While the specifics of the proposed name change varied, the town council ultimately decided against a permanent change. Rather, the town of 4,000 agreed to honor the pitcher with a single Stephen Strasburg Day should he come visit.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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