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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
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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