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Are Mermaids Real? 11 Myths the U.S. Government Has Addressed

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Usually the government sticks to reality, but there are a number of times where agencies have investigated or weighed in on more mythical ideas. From mermaids to Santa Claus, here are 11 legends that the government has acknowledged, even if just to deny.

1. Mermaids

Late last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a curious addition to its Ocean Facts section: "Are Mermaids Real?" Describing them as "half-human, half-fish sirens of the sea," the post goes on to describe the various appearances of mermaids in folklore, from cave paintings to The Odyssey. However, NOAA comes to the final conclusion that "no evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found." The agency says the post came in response to several requests from the public after Animal Planet aired a special called Mermaids: The Body Found that claimed to paint "a wildly convincing picture of the existence of mermaids."

Verdict: Not real

2. Mutants

While villainous government officials in the X-Men universe may have been fighting for mutant registration and restriction, a real-life lawsuit left the Department of Justice arguing that mutants are actually closer to humans. The bizarre case (described in a great Radiolab piece) centered on customs regulations and the definition of "dolls" versus "toys." According to the law, "dolls" represented humans and were taxed at a higher rate than "toys," which have non-human characteristics. A pair of enterprising lawyers working for a company producing figurines for Marvel realized that the company could almost halve their taxes by arguing that the "dolls" were actually non-human "toys." Citing features like Wolverine's claws, Cyclops' laser eyes and the blue fur of Beast, the company went to court to say that the mutants represented in the figurines could not be classified as human. The government, however, argued that the characters were essentially human. Ultimately, the United States Court of International Trade came down on the side of the toy company, declaring in their verdict that the mutants are "more than (or different than) humans" and adding that they "use their extraordinary and unnatural physical and psychic powers on the side of either good or evil."

Verdict: If they're real, they're not human

3. Zombies

After a Miami man was found eating a victim's face, a Baltimore college student admitted to killing his roommate and eating his body parts, and a New Jersey man threw his own intestines at police, rumors of a coming mass zombie attack started flying. In fact, the chatter got so heavy that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even had to respond. In a statement to the Huffington Post, CDC spokesman David Daigle wrote that the "CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms)."

Just in case, the CDC also has a helpful guide on preparing for a zombie apocalypse, published in May 2011. Among their tips: get an emergency kit ready, get your emergency contacts ready and plan multiple evacuation routes "so that the flesh eaters don't have a chance."

Verdict: Not real, but be prepared

4. Atlantis

Images published on Google Earth of the ocean floor have led several people to think that they've found the lost city of Atlantis, or at least evidence of some underwater civilization. The clue, they say, is a series of grid-like lines on the floor that had to be man-made. In response to several inquiries about the lines, NOAA has published posts debunking the Atlantis theories. The real reason the lines are there, they say, is because the mapping tools are layering several smaller maps on top of each other. "While the strange grid-like patterns they found were in fact created by humans, the patterns were only made of data," NOAA said.

Verdict: If it's real, you haven't found it yet.

5. Bermuda Triangle

The legend of the Bermuda Triangle (also known as the Devil's Triangle) describes a region of the Atlantic where ships and planes vanish. But on its website, the U.S. Coast Guard emphatically denies the existence of the triangle as a region of "specific hazard" to any ships and planes. In fact, the USCG says that a review of vehicle losses found "no extraordinary factors" relating to casualties or crashes. And NOAA -- noting that there are explanations for the supposed Devil's Triangle that are rooted in science -- cautions that there's no evidence for more disappearances in that region than anywhere else in the ocean.

Verdict: Not real

6. Santa Claus

Wondering where Santa Claus is every Christmas? The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) holds the answer with their annual Santa Tracker, which provides up-to-the-minute updates on where Father Christmas is delivering presents. The tradition started in 1955, when Sears posted an ad in a Colorado Springs newspaper with a number for children to call Santa. However, a misprint led to children actually calling a local Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Center, a military precursor to NORAD. The on-duty colonel told everyone at the base to give any children who called a location for Santa. Today the location is given out through a Google Earth map on the NORAD Santa Tracker website.

Verdict: He's right there!

7. UFOs

The FBI's online vault contains a treasure trove of documents for UFO enthusiasts, detailing various investigations and general interest into unexplained objects. The UFO page contains many reports of events between 1947 and 1954, including some that touch on the Roswell crash. Their verdict? Just a weather balloon.

Verdict: Not real, but worth investigating.

8. The Mayan Apocalypse

The Roland Emmerich disaster movie 2012 was one of the many recent takes on the legend that the world would end this December, when the Mayan calendar supposedly runs out. But don't tell NASA. The agency has an entire Q&A page dedicated to debunking those rumors. The page calmly states that the calendar does not end in 2012, but merely begins another period. And the scientists declare that there are no planets, asteroids or stars set to crash into the Earth, nor is there a threat of the Earth completely reversing its rotation. "Impressive movie special effects aside, Dec. 21, 2012, won't be the end of the world as we know," NASA wrote. "It will, however, be another winter solstice."

Verdict: Not true

9. Alien Attacks

Pretty much every alien invasion movie scenario was covered in a 2011 paper written by a NASA scientist along with colleagues from Penn State, including the possibility that aliens could attack humans because we're wasteful. The report considered a number of scenarios for alien contacts, everything from them coming in peace to their desire for destruction. Many of them fell on the slightly boring side -- they could come and be unable to communicate with humans, or they could accidentally carry a deadly disease. To make sure things will be okay, the researchers say that the best course of action is to not broadcast out our biological information and stick to communicating on a mathematical level until any alien intentions become clear.

Verdict: It's possible

10. Vampires

While not an official government position, the U.S. Army has tried to play on the existence of vampires in the past. According to passages of the book "Counter-Guerrilla Operations" by Philippine colonel Napoleon Valeriano and U.S. military adviser Charles Bohannan, U.S. soldiers in the Philippines fighting an uprising of the Huk rebels would try to scare their enemy using the legend of the monster. They would kidnap the last man in a Huk patrol, poke two holes in his neck and drain his body of blood. When the Huk rebels found him the next day, they would fear that vampires were around and would leave.

Verdict: Believe it if you want

11. ESP

Also tucked into the FBI Vault was a file on extra-sensory perception. One memo describes an agent going to see a display of ESP and mind powers put on by a man named William Foos, encouraging the FBI to follow up. If the powers turned out to be real, he wrote, "there is no limit to the value which could accrue to the FBI," including reading mail and seeing through walls. Ultimately, however, the file shows that an investigation showed up no evidence of ESP and the original display turned out to be a series of tricks.

Verdict: Not real

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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