Original image


Original image

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. 

This week we’re heading to America’s last great frontier to discover the quirky sights and sounds of Alaska.

The Hammer Museum


Dave Pahl has been collecting hand tools since he moved to Alaska in 1973.  For many years, he and his wife Carol lived on a small plot of land that had no running water or electricity, so keeping plenty of tools around for home repairs became a necessity.  During the snow-induced downtime of cold Alaskan winters, Dave refit old hammerheads with new handles, giving him a greater appreciation for nail drivers, as well as an ever-growing collection of unique specimens.  By 2001, Dave’s hammer collection had become too large to keep at home, so he and Carol purchased a small house on Main Street in Haines, Alaska, and opened the world’s only Hammer Museum

It might sound like the most boring place in America, but the variety in the collection never fails to amaze visitors. Among the items on display is a small hammer that smacked against the tables at Harlem’s Cotton Club in the 1920s to show the crowd’s appreciation for a musical act. Another, a ball of solid dolerite, was used by ancient Egyptians to chisel stone for the third pyramid at Giza. There are Masonic lodge hammers used to call meetings to order, warhammers from China and Rome, and even a hammer used to test the quality of cheese.  The collection includes hammers made from Waterford Crystal, whale blubber, and one consisting of hundreds of sheets of paper.  But the pride and joy of the museum is an 800-year old Tlingit “warrior’s pick,” a hammer that was used to whack an unwilling slave across the head so the body could be buried as a sacrifice when building a new longhouse. Pahl found the ancient tool while adding a basement to the building shortly before the museum opened.  

If you ever find yourself in Haines, Alaska, you can’t miss the museum—there’s a 20-foot statue of a hammer in the front. At any given time you’ll find about 1500 hammers on display from a collection that reportedly numbers over 7000 specimens. 

The Fur Rondy

Even with modern conveniences like central heating, high-speed internet access, and hundreds of TV channels, Alaskan winters can be pretty tough. So it’s no surprise that after so many months of cabin fever, many folks need to get out of the house and blow off some steam. Since 1935, Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, has found this sweet release with a festival of sport called the Fur Rendezvous, or “Fur Rondy” for short.

Created to welcome the mountain-dwelling miners and trappers that arrived at the first signs of spring in order to sell their winter haul, the Fur Rondy originally featured fairly standard athletic events like skiing, hockey, basketball, boxing, and a children’s sled dog race. While many of those competitions are still going strong, over time, quirkier contests have been added to a revolving lineup of events that reflect the unique culture of Alaska. Today, one of the highlights of the festival is the outhouse races, where teams see who can push an outhouse on skis across the finish line first.

The Snowshoe Softball tournament is always fun to watch, as is the fast-paced action of Yukigassen—a game of capture the flag played with snowballs—where the winning team goes on to represent the U.S. in the World Championship tournament in Japan. The snow-packed streets of Anchorage play host to two major contests: The Frostbite Footrace features serious competitors and fun runners wearing the craziest costumes they can find, and the World Championship Sled Dog Race, a grueling three-day competition with some of the best mushers and snow dogs from around the world. And not to be outdone by Pamplona, Spain, the Rondy has the Running of the Reindeer, where Santa’s hooved helpers sprint through crowds of costumed runners who try to stay ahead of the antlers coming from behind.

For those less athletically inclined, the Fur Rondy has plenty to offer, including native artwork, snow sculptures, carnival rides, stage performances at the Goose Theatre, the Rondy on Ice figure skating show, and one of the festival’s original events: the fur, horn, and hide auctions, featuring the finest in animal pelts to keep you warm on cold Alaskan nights. You can also buy a ticket for the long-running Miner’s and Trapper’s Charity Ball to see the crowning of a new “Mr. Fur Face” in the Alaska State Beard and Moustache Contest.

The festival has already closed for 2013, but be sure to check the official website for a full schedule of next year’s dates and events. 

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? Is there a fun festival that everyone should attend? Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States!

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
Library of Congress
10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
Original image
Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.


One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.


Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.


Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”


The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.


Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.


Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.


The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.


Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.