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13 Bizarrely Specific Official State Appetizers, Toys, Soils, and More

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By Lauren Hansen

State symbols are meant to represent the cultural heritage and historic treasures of each of the nation's 50 states. There are the obvious if unimaginative ones—flag, seal, motto—and then there are the more obscure groups—state footwear, anyone? While some of these items do make a lot of sense (Texas' state footwear, for example, is, duh, the cowboy boot), others have a hazier connection to their respective states. Here, 13 of our favorites.

1. Rhode Island's (proposed) official state appetizer: Calamari

Perhaps you're familiar with the concept of official state foods? Maybe you've traveled to Maryland and enjoyed their blue crabs, or have heard of Georgia's famous fresh peaches? Well, a Rhode Island legislator wants his small ocean-side state to have an edible symbol all its own. Rep. Joseph McNamara believes his state should embrace a signature appetizer, specifically calamari. McNamara says the fact that the state has the largest squid fishing fleet and that its chefs transform the lowly cephalopods into a uniquely tasty delicacy makes the bill a no-brainer. And naming an official appetizer opens the door for so much more. "Who knows?" he said. "We might go on to entrees next year." Oklahoma, for its part, has already designated a whole state meal, consisting of fried okra, squash, cornbread, barbecue pork, biscuits, sausage and gravy, grits, corn, strawberries, chicken fried steak, black-eyed peas, and, if you have room for it, pecan pie.

2. Massachusetts' (proposed) official state rock song: "Roadrunner"

Massachusetts already has an official folk song (Arlo Guthrie's "Massachusetts") and polka song ("Say Hello to Someone From Massachusetts"), but what's sorely missing is a head-banging rock option. Well, Joyce Linehan — a former band manager and campaigner for Sen. Elizabeth Warren — is trying to change that. With the support of Massachusetts Rep. Marty Walsh, Linehan began campaigning in February for a bill that would name the '70s band Modern Lovers' song "Roadrunner" the official state hard rock song. The song is about growing up in the Commonwealth and throws in several Boston references. The bill's Facebook page, which is trying to reach 123,456 likes, is currently up to 1,805.

3. Minnesota's (proposed) official state poem: "Minnesota Blue"

Considering the poem's name, plus the fact that it starts and ends with the verse "Minnesota, how I love you," Cordell Keith Haugen's homage to the Midwestern state might seem like a no-brainer. At least that's what Republican Sen. Bruce Anderson, who is backing the bill introduced in February, believes. But "Minnesota Blue" is a controversial pick, especially for Democratic Phyllis Kahn, who says the fact that Haugen, a singer/songwriter from Hawaii, isn't actually a Minnesotan is "particularly offensive." Good luck, "Minnesota Blue."

4. Arizona's official state firearm: Colt Single Action Army Revolver

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer officially made the Colt Single Action Army Revolver the state's firearm on April 28, 2011. The legislation came only months after the mass shooting in Tucson that nearly killed then-congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and left six others dead. Supporters of the bill, which narrowly made it through the state House, said there was nothing wrong with honoring a firearm's contribution to the state's western heritage. "Arizona was founded by rugged individuals who took care of themselves and did so largely with a [Colt] on their hip,"said lobbyist Todd Rathner.

5. Kansas' (proposed) official state dog: Cairn terrier

During Dorothy's bizarre trip from Kansas to Oz and back again, her faithful companion Toto was forever by her side. Which is why the loyal and adorable cairn terrier is at the center of a bill, backed by a state representative and proposed in 2012, to make the breed the state's official dog. And Kansans are quite open to the canine honor. In fact, back in 2006, a local schoolteacher's petition garnered thousands of signatures for a similar bill, but in the end, lacked a supportive legislator. While the current bill is still in political limbo, supporters say the Toto dog is an indisputably good choice given that Kansas is already "forever linked" to The Wizard of Oz.

6. Maryland's official state sport: Jousting

Tourists may come to Maryland for the blue crabs, but it's the state's official sport — jousting — that has the truly historic ties. While only designated in 1962, jousting tournaments have been held in Maryland since early colonial times. While competitors, still referred to as "knights" and "maids," no longer aim their fine-tipped lances at each other, the men and women charge a horse at full-gallop through an 80-yard course toward suspended rings in attempt to "spear" the loops, scoring points accordingly. But jousting better watch its back, as fans of Duckpin bowling are hot on its medieval heels. Owners of the state's approximately 50 duckpin bowling alleys are petitioning to make their sport — which is similar to bowling, only with a smaller ball — the state's official pastime. Supporters point out that the sport was actually invented in Baltimore and Maryland is, "without question, the Mecca of duckpin bowling."

7. North Carolina's official state popular dance: The shag

Several states actually have an official state dance — Hawaii has the hula, for example — but only a few have two. North Carolina is one such lucky and apparently rhythmic state. In 2005, the General Assembly passed a bill making the official folk dance clogging — a Gaelic derivative developed in the Southern Appalachian Mountains and selected because of its "distinct, dignified, and beautiful footwork." The same bill acknowledged the official popular dance as the shag, which is a form of swing dancing that some believe originated on the Carolina beach during the 1940s.

8. Maine's official state soft drink: Moxie

The taste of Moxie isn't for everyone. It starts out with a familiar smack, like Pepsi or root beer, but quickly takes on a medical flavor with notes of wintergreen and bitters, ending rather strongly with a dry bitterness not unlike vermouth. Even after the first or second taste, you might feel the urge to spit it out. But with patience, even the newly initiated will come to realize the soft drink is "the beverage of gourmets." And the beverage is without a doubt the choice of Mainers. The carbonated refreshment in the bright orange packaging is unique to the Northeast. Concocted in the 1870s by a doctor in Union, Maine, the beverage went on to outsell Coca-Cola in the early 1900s. The bill making Moxie the state's official soft drink passed in 2005, and says the very name "symbolizes spirit and courage," virtues esteemed by true Mainers.

9. Illinois' official state dirt: Drummer

The Land of Lincoln is actually flush with state symbols, from snack food (popcorn) to amphibian (eastern tiger salamander). But in 2001, the Illinois General Assembly dug deep to find a new emblem, and unanimously approved a bill establishing an official state soil — Drummer silty clay loam. Why, you might ask? Supporters say they hope the official designation will make residents more aware of the connection between the state's farming economy and the soil that makes such success possible. "Soil is crucial to our state's history, our quality of life, and our future," says Bill Gradle, the state conservationist. While few would be able to distinguish Drummer from regular old dirt, the official soil is actually the state's most common, covering about 1.5 million acres, and is especially suited to growing the state's most valuable field crops — corn and soybeans. And Illinois isn't alone in acknowledging the earth. At least 20 other states have similar honors, including Wisconsin and Florida.

10. Missouri's official state dinosaur: The Hypsibema

The Hypsibema missouriense is a type of herbivore distinguished by its duck-billed head. Within that strong jaw are more than 1,000 teeth that evolved over time to handle tough, fibrous vegetation. The dinosaur was native to Missouri during the Late Cretaceous Period and its fossils were first discovered in 1942 by Dan Stewart near the town of Glen Allen, Mo. The plant-eating beast was adopted by Missouri as its state dino on July 9, 2004. There are only six other states that have taken particular prehistoric animals as their own.

11. Wisconsin's official state microbe: The Lactococcus lactis

On the surface, Wisconsin's 2010 nomination of a microbe may seem like a mockery of state government's favor of minutiae over movement. However, the Lactococcus lactis isn't your average microbe. The hardworking bacterium is used to make cheddar, Colby, and Monterey Jack cheeses and is "an unsung hero" of the nation's No. 1 cheese-producing state.

12. New Mexico's official state question: "Red or green?"

New Mexico really got down to the symbolic nitty gritty when, in 1996, the legislature passed a House Joint Memorial declaring "Red or green?" as the official state question. The options refers to the red or green chilies native to New Mexican cuisine, and is the inquiry most often heard in local restaurants. Chiles are the state's top cash crop, and the adoption of the peculiar question acknowledges the pod's historical importance. Unsurprisingly, New Mexico is the only state to have such a designation.

13. Mississippi's official state toy: The Teddy bear

Mississippi wanted to cinch its connection to the origin story of the Teddy bear, and passed a bill in 2002 making it the state's official toy. The story, in case you're wondering, goes like this: In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt traveled to Mississippi for a hunting expedition during which the president refused to shoot a helpless bear as it would be unsportsmanlike. Soon after, a New York toy company labeled a stuffed toy bear "Teddy's bear," instituting the cuddly copy as a childhood favorite for decades to come. Mississippi is actually the only state with an official toy, though Pennsylvania has a proposed bill that would make the Slinky its official state toy.

Sources: The Baltimore SunCBS LocalFox NewsHuffington PostThe New York TimesReuters, State Symbols USATwinCities.comUSA Today

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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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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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