Original image
Flickr user Jimmy Emerson

8 Towns that are Numbered

Original image
Flickr user Jimmy Emerson

Towns with strange names are an opportunity to peek into the past to determine where those names come from. It's also a window into the many marvelous places in the United States, as each community has a story to tell. Here are the stories behind the names of six communities named after numbers.

1. Hundred, West Virginia

Photo credit: Hundred Area Pride.

Hundred, West Virginia was founded by Henry Church, one of its earliest settlers. Church was born in 1750 and was sent to America to help put down the colonies' rebellion. After the Revolutionary War, he elected to stay, and built a cabin in West Virginia along with his new wife, who he met in America. Church stayed at his farm until he died in 1860 at the age of 109 (shortly after his wife died at 106). Locals called this first inhabitant of the area "Old Hundred," and the town took on that name in his honor. The post office was established in 1886, and was named simply Hundred.

2. Fifty-Six, Arkansas

Photo credit:

Fifty-Six is a town of 163 people in Stone County, Arkansas. In the 1920s, Reva Newcomb opened a general store and applied to establish a post office in the community. He requested the name Pleasant Hill, but since that name was already used in Arkansas, the postal service responded by approving his second-choice name, which was Fifty-Six, the number of the school district. Fifty-Six is nestled in the Ozarks, and offers several tourist stops, such as Blanchard Springs Caverns and Mirror Lake.

3. Ninety Six, South Carolina

The town of Ninety Six, South Carolina, dates at least to 1730, the earliest documentation of a general store, which served traders traveling to Cherokee country. The name is thought to have been derived from a surveyor's estimate that the town was 96 miles from Keowee, an important Cherokee community. A fort was built at Ninety Six in 1775 to defend the community from the British. The British took the town, built a new fort in a star shape, and held it until 1781, when they left and burned the community behind them. In 1783, a new Ninety Six was built next to the ruined fort. The location of the original Ninety Six fort and the Star Fort are now designated as a National Historic Site.   

4. Twentysix, Kentucky

Photo credit: Wikipedia user Coal town guy.

Twentysix is an unincorporated community in Morgan County, Kentucky. The story is that the community's first postmaster, Martha Rowland, submitted 25 possible community names, and then jotted down "26," which was the year she submitted the list -1926. The post office was officially established in 1927, and closed in 1957.

5. Eighty Eight, Kentucky

Photo credit: Flickr user Jimmy Emerson.

The town of Eighty-Eight, Kentucky, is in Barren County, near Glasgow. It was named in 1860 by postmaster Dabnie Nunnally, who figured that "88" would be readable even in his own bad handwriting. The number came from the amount of change in his pocket. In the 1948 presidential election, the community reported 88 votes for Truman and 88 votes for Dewey, which earned it a spot in Ripley's Believe It or Not.

Photo credit: Donald.

Then in 1988, postmistress Donnie Sue Bacon noticed an increasing number of letters were being sent for the purpose of having them stamped with the Eighty Eight postmark. The community took advantage of the special year and had a celebration on August 8, 1988. A parade (held the day before, as 8/8/88 was a Monday) was led by a child who would turn eight on 8/8/88, and the grand marshall was 88-year-old Eighty-Eight resident Elsie Billingsley. A couple drove in from Wyoming to be married in the community at 8:08 PM on 8/8/88.     

6. Seventy-Six, Kentucky

The town of Seventy-Six, Kentucky, was named for nearby Seventy-Six Falls, on Lake Cumberland. Seventy-Six Falls is actually easier to reach by boat than by road. The number has nothing to do with the height or width of the falls, but was the designation on a surveyor's notes for the nearby station number. The town was settled in 1806 when John W. Semple built a grist mill, and later a general store. The small town thrived for about 100 years, and then began a long decline. The mill burned in 1943, and the area is now a park.

7. Eighty Four, Pennsylvania

Eighty Four, Pennsylvania, is a community of over 600 people about 25 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. The community was originally called Smithville, but there was another Smithville in Pennsylvania. The local postmaster selected Eighty Four as a new name because the year was 1884. Or it could have also been named after a local railroad mile marker. Other stories about the name abound, like the one where settlers killed 84 marauding Indians, or that only 84 settlers survived a bad winter. The most likely explanation is the postmaster who "just didn't have a whole lot of imagination." Eighty Four was the birthplace of 84 Lumber, the largest privately-held building materials chain in the U.S.  

8. Sixes, Oregon

Photo credit: Flickr user Larry Myhre.

The town of Sixes, in Curry County, Oregon, is named for the Sixes River. The consensus is that the river was named Sixes as an English corruption of a Native American term, but which was the original term? It may have been "sikhs," meaning "friend," or "Sa-qua-mi," which is thought by some to be the original native name of the river (early maps label it the "Sequalchin River"), or maybe it was "Sik-ses-tene," the name of a local tribe.

See also:
10 Loud Places That Are Actually Nice and Quiet
The Origins of Weird State Park Names
10 Town Names That Will Make You Hungry
and Origins of 8 of the Strangest Place Names in Canada

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

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

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]