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ThinkStock

Alabama

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ThinkStock

If you want to learn about a place, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home.

We'll kick things off in "the Heart of Dixie": the Yellowhammer State, Alabama.

The Coon Dog Graveyard

Wikimedia Commons

Key Underwood and his coon dog, Troop, were legends in northwest Alabama’s Colbert County. Whenever men gathered at a hunting camp just outside the town of Cherokee, the tales of Underwood and Troop running raccoons up trees would keep the crowd entertained for hours. The two hunted together for 15 years, until 1937, when Troop died just before Labor Day. To honor his friend, Underwood wrapped Troop’s body in a cotton sack and buried him beneath a tree at the old campgrounds. He marked the spot with a brick from a nearby chimney and used a hammer and screwdriver to chisel a simple epitaph. Soon after, other coon dog owners began burying their faithful hounds at the same site, unintentionally establishing the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard, the only one of its kind in the world.

As the name implies, you won’t find any poodles or pitbulls here. Larry Sanderson, Vice President of the Coon Dog Graveyard, has said, “We have stipulations on this thing. A dog can’t run no deer, possum—nothing like that. He’s got to be a straight coon dog, and he’s got to be full hound.” For a dog to be buried at the site, a dog’s owner must find a witness that will back up his coon dog claim, and the body must also pass inspection by a member of the graveyard’s board to verify its breed. More often than not, when a dog is interred, a large gathering turns out to pay their last respects, even if they never knew the dog or the owner. For the 2011 burial of Bo, a coon dog from southern Illinois, 400 people attended a ceremony that included music, flowers, prayers, and even a flyover by a local pilot.

So far, more than 250 coon dogs have been laid to rest at the cemetery. Some of the graves carry simple wooden or metal markers, while others have ornate tombstones like those you’d find in a more traditional graveyard. In addition, every Labor Day, a festival is held to honor these loyal hounds, complete with live music, a barbecue, and, befitting the tall tales told at the hunting camp, a liar’s contest.

The Boll Weevil Monument

Wikimedia Commons

When a city dedicates a monument, it’s usually to honor a worthy member of the community or mark an historic event people would like to remember. But since 1919, Enterprise, Alabama has had a statue dedicated to a six millimeter beetle that nearly brought the local economy to its knees.

The boll weevil is a tiny insect that gets its name from its favorite meal—the silky fibers inside the boll, or seed pod, of the cotton plant. The pest crossed over from Mexico in the late 1800s and began eating its way across the South. In Coffee County, Alabama, cotton production had fallen from an average 15,000 bales to only 5000 bales in the 1915 crop, all due to the creeping weevil invasion. In a desperate attempt to save the region’s economy, two businessmen traveled to North Carolina in 1916 and brought back a load of seed peanuts. After much cajoling, one farmer finally agreed to plant his entire acreage in the new crop. For that year, cotton plummeted to only 1500 bales, but the peanuts were a bumper crop at 8000 bushels. Other farmers jumped on the peanut wagon and, in 1917, Coffee County produced over 1 million bushels of the legume, valued at over $5 million. To this day, Alabama continues to be a major producer of peanuts, with an estimated 150,000 acres planted in 2013.

When the peanut became a bona fide hit in Coffee County, Enterprise, Alabama businessman Roscoe Owen Fleming suggested—with tongue planted firmly in cheek—that the city should erect a monument to the weevil. After all, by convincing farmers to adapt to conditions and try something new, the little bug had, in a roundabout way, saved the town. The joke caught on, though, and Fleming soon ordered a statue from Italy featuring a woman dressed in a flowing gown holding a trophy over her head. Water sprayed from the trophy into a large concrete basin below, and two street lights lit the ornate column upon which she stood, reaching a height of about 13 feet. The $3000 monument (~$40,000 today), mostly paid for by Fleming, was placed in the middle of the street in the city’s business district on December 11, 1919 at a dedication ceremony attended by 5000 people. George Washington Carver, a major proponent for peanuts as an alternative to cotton, was scheduled to speak at the ceremony, but train rails were flooded out and he was unable to attend.

But what’s a boll weevil monument without a boll weevil? Thirty years after its dedication, the fountain was capped with a larger-than-life model of the voracious insect. Naturally, the big bug became a magnet for bored pranksters who have stolen it on more than one occasion, often damaging the rest of the statue in the process. After the weevil disappeared in 1998, taking much of the maiden’s arms with it, the entire statue was moved to a nearby museum for safekeeping. In its place is a resin replica made from a cast that was used to make an exact copy for a Southern history exhibit at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. But vandals beware: The boll weevil monument is now monitored by a security camera 24/7.

Know the story behind an unusual person or place in your state? Maybe a little-known urban legend that others should hear? Is your state home to the largest ball of twine or a creepy abandoned theme park? Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States!

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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