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11 Reasons Florida Is Stranger Than You Ever Knew

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Florida is often the subject of strange and surprising news headlines, and for good reason. The Sunshine State is full of ecological anomalies and cultural fusions, and it carries a richer history than non-Floridians may realize. Here are a few interesting tidbits.


With its warm climate and abundant yearly rainfall, Florida is a perfect host for a wide range of flora and fauna. Sometimes, however, nonnative species take up residence and wreak unexpected havoc. The Giant African Land Snail is one of the state’s more recent biohazards. The gastropod can grow to be eight inches long and eats a variety of problematic foodstuffs: agricultural crops, plaster, and even stucco, making it a threat to homeowners. The snails are also reported to carry a parasite that can cause meningitis in humans. The lesson here: If your backyard is subtropical, you probably shouldn’t let those aquarium pets go free. 


Giant African Land Snails aren’t the only unwelcome addition to Florida’s ecosystem. The state deals with a variety of creatures that find its lush greenery and scenic views as alluring as do its constant stream of tourists. One of the more frightening new arrivals spawned a unique cultural phenomenon: the Python Challenge.

The Burmese Python has adapted to life in the Everglades a little too successfully. The giant snakes have a voracious appetite, are well camouflaged for the area, and lack any natural predators—except, of course, for humans.

So the Wildlife Foundation of Florida issued a challenge: For thirty days, bag as many pythons as you can. Cash prizes would be awarded to whomever bagged the longest snakes and the highest number of them. The event was a hunter’s dream. However, despite drawing 1500 participants, the month-long event produced a modest catch of 50 snakes. As it turns out, the snakes’ ideal camouflage made the Python Challenge quite challenging indeed.


In addition to hosting potentially frightening wildlife, Florida is also home to other startling hazards. The state’s land is largely composed of layers of sand supported by a foundation of either porous limestone or dolomite. This combination forms a complex network of caves and springs that provide beautiful natural attractions but that can also create sudden sinkholes. Though it’s difficult to quantify exactly how common sinkholes are, between 2006 and 2010, Florida insurance companies received an average of 17 claims a day reporting sinkhole damage throughout the state.


Many of you may remember studying Spanish conquistadors and explorers in American history classes, but you may or may not have been told how long the Spanish remained in Florida. Juan Ponce de Leon landed in Florida in 1513, christening the land for its lush flowers and kicking off the first Spanish period. Though the French also established settlements along the Gulf Coast, they weren’t able to take hold in Florida and fared more successfully in areas farther west. Spanish control in Florida lasted until 1763, when Spain ceded the territory to Great Britain. 

Spain regained Florida at the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783 and kept a provisional government in place until 1819, meaning that Florida belonged to Spain for a grand total of 280 years—longer than the United States has been an independent nation. 


Florida’s reputation as a crucial swing state is well established. The state’s 27 electoral votes have helped sway 12 out of the past 14 elections. While its importance in the national arena is understood, Florida’s party leanings can be difficult to predict (as spoofed in 30 Rock’s “Unwindulax” episode, which appeared in conjunction with the 2012 presidential election and targets the unpredictability of North Florida).

Politics on a state and local level can be equally unpredictable. Consequently, when a group of faux-Satanists rallied on the Capitol steps in Tallahassee in support of current governor Rick Scott’s passage of a new bill allowing public schools to read inspirational messages of various faiths at school events, it took the press a full 24 hours to realize the stunt wasn’t real. After all, stranger things have happened in Florida—right? 


Strange news stories are so common in Florida that they’ve spawned a Twitter spoof. The Florida Man Twitter account compiles bizarre headlines as if a single person, “the world’s worst superhero,” enacted them. With almost 400 tweets in only four months, it’s easy to see how the page has attracted over 100,000 followers.


St. Augustine was established by the Spanish in 1565, a full 42 years before the English established Jamestown and 55 before Plymouth Rock. This distinction makes St. Augustine the oldest continuously occupied city in the United States. 


Though Spain controlled Florida for most of its colonial history, Great Britain occupied the area during the years immediately preceding and during the American Revolutionary War. While Florida was a British colony during the war, it remained loyal to the crown (along with several British holdings in Canada and the Caribbean) and was a haven for loyalist supporters fleeing the rebellious thirteen colonies to the north.


The same geological composition that lends itself to sinkholes creates abundant freshwater springs throughout the state. In fact, Florida has more springs than any other US state.

According to legend, Juan Ponce de Leon’s initial voyage to Florida came as a result of his search for the fabled Fountain of Youth. Today, plenty of Floridian springs claim to have hosted Ponce de Leon and tempt tourists by offering their restorative waters to sample—though any spring that truly reduces the effects of aging remains a well-kept secret.


In case the Fountain of Youth isn’t your thing, Florida offers other unusual attractions, like Homestead’s Coral Castle. Purportedly built by a single man, Ed Leedskalnin of Riga, Latvia, over 28 years, the castle features 1100 tons of coral rock sculptures—a feat that has been compared to the construction of Egypt’s ancient pyramids.


Each April, thousands of beachgoers flock to the Florabama bar for the annual Mullet Toss. Participants toss a mullet (the fish, not the hairstyle) across the state line from Alabama to Florida, with prizes going to the longest throws. Only Alabama would institute a competition over chucking dead fish—but only Florida would agree to receive that toss.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]