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9 Things Everyone Should Know About North Dakota

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Everyone gives North Dakota a hard time. Well, some people in Montana and South Dakota do. People in states farther away can’t name a single thing about it. But we should all give this place more respect. It might be cold, it might have long and tedious roads, and it might not even be a state. (More about that in a moment.) But it was the birthplace of conservation in the U.S., made a man out of Teddy Roosevelt, and now has a bustling economy and plenty of jobs. The joke might be on everyone else.

1. It’s the thirty-ninth State… or the fortieth… or maybe even the fiftieth!

Did you think that Hawaii was the fiftieth state? Well, you (and most other people) might have been wrong. Poring over historical records some years ago, retired North Dakotan history teacher John Rolczynski noticed something missing when the Constitution was drawn up in 1889. The U.S. Constitution mandates that senators, representatives, state legislators and “all executive and judicial officers” take an oath to uphold the Constitution. By forgetting to include that line, Rolczynski believes, North Dakota defied the U.S. Constitution. North Dakotans will vote in November 2012 on whether they need to “clarify” their statehood.


Before Rolczynski’s discovery, it was assumed that North Dakota was either the thirty-ninth or the fortieth State. When the papers were signed, along with the adjoining state of South Dakota, U.S. Secretary of State James Blaine (instructed by the President, Benjamin Harrison, not to pick favorites) deliberately shuffled the papers so that nobody knew which of the two states was first to sign. North Dakota is officially listed as #39, simply because “North” comes before “South” in the alphabet.

2. It has an Enchanted Highway.

North Dakota is notorious for long roads surrounded by nothing but grassland and farms. To break up the tedium on the way to the town of Regent (in the south of the state), retired schoolteacher and principal Gary Greff had a novel idea: huge scrap metal sculptures every few miles. Since 1991, without attending a single art class, he has constructed seven towering sculptures, all made of recycled metal, on the Enchanted Highway (as the road to Regent has now been renamed). “Geese in Flight,” erected in 2001, holds the Guinness World Record as the largest metal sculpture in the world. Constructed from used oil-well pipes and oil tanks, it is 156 feet long, 100 feet tall, and weighs 75 tons. Greff still has another four sculptures to build, but is currently focused on building a new hotel out of a disused schoolhouse in Regent, in the shape of a castle. Its name: The Enchanted Castle.

3. The economy is booming.

As fellow _flosser Matthew Hickman pointed out last week, North Dakota has been blessed with an expanding economy and low unemployment, thanks to huge oil reserves. Currently, they are undergoing their third major oil boom – mainly because new technology allows them to tap into the oil reserves to the north of the state, which previously couldn’t be drilled sustainably. The northern half of the state is a hive of business, as workers from around the area move to the oilfields. Locals – who have long seen their best and brightest graduates move to Washington or California to pursue their careers – now laugh at the fact that workers from Washington and California are flocking to North Dakota for work. The roads, never constructed for large volumes of traffic, are being rebuilt to cope with their frequent use by heavy vehicles. In some regions, there are five jobs available for every person looking for work.

4. It’s a food basket to the nation.

For all the oil, the number one industry is still agriculture, which directly employs nearly a quarter of the population. There are 30,000 family farms and ranches (average farm size: 1,300 acres), and farms take up nearly 90 percent of the state (that’s 39 million acres). Idaho has its potatoes, and Iowa has its corn, but North Dakota is the nation’s number one producer of spring wheat (nearly half the nation’s total), durum wheat, sunflower, barley, oats, lentils, honey, edible beans, canola and flaxseed. It also grows plenty of potatoes and corn, thank you very much.

5. It changed the rules of meatpacking.

North Dakota’s most popular tourist spot is the Wild West town of Medora, founded in 1883 by a French nobleman, the Marquis de Mores. The Marquis, who came to the Dakota Territory to start a meatpacking plant, was a pioneer. His greatest innovation was refrigerated meat… which was impressive, because iceboxes weren’t widely available back then. However, the economy of meatpacking made him think of new ideas. Rather than crowd the cattle into a railroad carrier, then send them to the slaughterhouse in Chicago, he would have them slaughtered in the North Dakota, dress the meat and pack it in boxcars with slabs of ice. Most of the beef would arrive safely in Chicago.

6. It made a man out of Teddy Roosevelt.

Theodore Roosevelt was known as one of America’s great action-man presidents – hunter, rancher, horse-rider, war hero. But in his younger years, he was a frail, weak, asthmatic dandy whose poor health had made his childhood a struggle. While studying at Harvard, he was told by his personal physician that he didn’t have long to live. But from 1883, at the age of 25, he lived in the Dakota Territory (which would be North Dakota six years later). Falling in love with the wilderness of the Little Missouri River Valley (which reminded him of the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe), he became a rancher and buffalo-hunter. By the time he left North Dakota in 1886, he was a tan, muscular figure who, according to one reporter, was “hearty and strong enough to drive oxen.”

“I never would have been President is it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota,” he later said. Though he was born in New York, North Dakota was probably his favorite state. Even if it wasn’t, North Dakotans are happy to claim him. His time in ND also inspired his love for nature and conservation, and he later declared the first National Parks. The wilderness area that he adored became the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in 1947.

7. You might have seen it in Fargo (if you didn’t blink).

North Dakota’s largest and most famous city, Fargo, has a population of 105,549. However, much of its fame is due to the Coen Brothers’ 1996 movie of that name, which revealed little about the city apart from the snowy weather and the malicious nature of some of its locals. It was hardly the best publicity for the town, which is particularly unfair because Fargo was based vaguely on two true events, both of which happened in Minnesota. (It opens with the words “This is a true story,” which is a slight exaggeration.) The movie was also filmed primarily in Minnesota. However, the snowy exteriors were shot in Fargo, which is indeed known for bitter winters where the temperature falls below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

8. It’s a great place for A Christmas Carol.

Almost every weekend, in a town somewhere in North Dakota, there is some kind of festival to lure visitors: a goose festival (GooseFest) in Kenmare, a duck festival (Duckfest) in Bowdon, a grape and garlic festival (if you can believe that combo) in Minot, a spare ribs festival and an apple festival in Bismarck, a BBQ turkey festival in Lakota, an oil festival in Williston. But for true festivity, few can beat the town of Garrison. They started drawing in visitors with a walleye fishing contest, but 20 years ago, due to a love for Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a Dickens Festival was started. People now visit, in the weeks before Christmas each year, to witness the locals roam the streets dressed like characters from a Victorian-era English novel, and see the amateur theatrical troupe produce various version of the story of Ebenezer Scrooge.

While the Dickens Festival brings people from around the state, Garrison’s festival fun doesn’t stop there. “Someone was a kite-flying aficionado, so we started the Kite Festival, which has become very popular,” says one of the Dickens Festival organizers, Jude Iverson. They even have a beach party in late August, on the banks of the mighty Lake Missouri. Not exactly Malibu, but students love it.

9. It was a favorite spot for Lewis and Clark.

The explorers Lewis and Clark, on their famous two-year expedition of territory beyond the Mississippi, spent more time in North Dakota than in any other state – or at least, they would have if the region were already comprised of states. In October 1804, not far from North Dakota’s present-day capital city of Bismarck, they were joined by a Canadian fur trader and his wife, Sacagawea, a local girl who became their interpreter. Sacagawea, a member of the Shoshone tribe, is regarded very highly by North Dakotans for her brains, brawn (she carried her first child on her back throughout the journey) and beauty (she has been immortalized in bronze statues throughout the State). In fact, she is a member of North Dakota’s Cowboy Hall of Fame. She never even met a cowboy, but this is practically the state’s highest honor.


Mark Juddery is an author and historian based in Australia. His latest book, Overrated: The 50 Most Overhyped Things in History (Perigree), is already causing a stir. You can order it from Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and you can argue with Mark's choices (or suggest new ones) on his blog.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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