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If you want to learn about someplace, 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. Peruse the whole Strange States series here.

Today we're heading to the birthplace of Wal-Mart, Johnny Cash, and Bill Clinton: the Natural State, Arkansas.

The Legend of Boggy Creek

Conventional cryptozoological wisdom has it that Bigfoot generally sticks to his Pacific Northwest stomping grounds. But for years now, people around the small town of Fouke, Arkansas, near the borders of Texas and Louisiana, have seen their own version of the legendary apeman lurking among the trees on the banks of Boggy Creek. Although sightings go back as far as the 1930s, the Fouke Monster became a mainstream sensation in 1971 when two families staying in a remote cabin claimed they were attacked by a 7-foot tall, 300-pound bipedal creature covered in reddish-brown fur. They were able to scare the thing off with their hunting rifles, but not before 25-year-old Bobby Ford was allegedly wounded by the beast, sending him to the hospital with animal-like scratches on his back. When police investigated the scene, they saw claw marks on the porch and odd, three-toed primate footprints in the area, but no concrete evidence of the creature was found. 

Intrigued by the stories of the monster (and looking to cash-in on the media attention), local advertising salesman Charlie Pierce borrowed $100,000 from a local trucking company to make 1972’s The Legend of Boggy Creek, a feature film with interviews and footage of authentic Fouke Monster witnesses, as well as reenactments of sightings, including the Bobby Ford incident. The film was marketed for drive-in theaters and Saturday matinees, and proved to be a big hit, bringing in over $20 million in box office receipts. (It has also been credited with inspiring The Blair Witch Project thanks to its docudrama storytelling structure.)

New sightings of the Fouke Monster around Boggy Creek crop up every few years, adding new elements to the legend.  Some subsequent witnesses say the creature has long, monkey-like arms, others say he’s 10 feet tall with glowing red eyes, and some accounts mention a horrible smell—like a cross between a skunk and a wet dog—that permeates the air whenever he’s spotted.  Of course there are those who believe these sightings are little more than a case of mistaken identity, with a bear being the most likely culprit.  But whether real or fictional, the legend of Boggy Creek continues to grow, and will undoubtedly do so for years to come.

Christ of the Ozarks

Nestled in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas is Eureka Springs, a picturesque Victorian village that draws tourists year-round to its many arts and music festivals, car shows, and gay-friendly events. The town is filled with unusual sights, like the Guinness Record-holding World’s Largest Tuned Musical Windchime, the ghost-infested Crescent Hotel, and at the top of nearby Magnetic Mountain, a monumental statue of Jesus, known as Christ of the Ozarks.

The oddly-shaped figure—many say it looks like a milk carton with a head and arms—is the work of eccentric sculptor Emmet Sullivan. Sullivan is something of a legend among roadside attraction enthusiasts as the designer of animal and dinosaur statues at a number of theme parks in Arkansas and South Dakota. But at a height of 67 feet, with an arm span 65 feet wide, and weighing in at over two million pounds, Christ of the Ozarks is undoubtedly Sullivan’s most ambitious piece.      

The $1 million monument was commissioned by Gerald L. K. Smith, a controversial figure in American politics during the 1930s and '40s, mostly known for his anti-Semitic rhetoric. Christ of the Ozarks became the centerpiece of Smith’s Sacred Projects, a 167-acre Christian theme park with religious attractions, that opened in 1968 and essentially gave birth to the tourist industry of Eureka Springs.

The attractions at Sacred Projects include full-scale dioramas of locations in the Holy Land, complete with Jesus’ tomb (post-resurrection), that give visitors a snapshot of life in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. There’s also the Bible museum with over 6000 Bibles in 625 languages and dialects, including a page from one of only 47 original Gutenberg Bibles in existence. A gallery with over 1000 pieces of religious artwork is on the grounds, as well as a replica of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, and even a section of the Berlin Wall. But the highlight of the park is The Great Passion Play, a live performance starring a cast of 150 actors and a menagerie of animals, that tells the story of Jesus. The play is held in a natural amphitheater that seats over 4000 people on a 550-foot stage, with sets that reach three stories high. Over the years, the play has been seen by over 7 million people, helping it earn the title of America’s #1 Attended Outdoor Drama. 

Although it’s still an important part of the Eureka Springs economy, the Great Passion Play has suffered from low attendance in recent years as other local attractions have become more popular. During its heyday in the 1970s, it welcomed 300,000 annual visitors, but last year’s attendance was just over 46,500.  In fact, the park was forced to shut down in December 2012, but was able to reopen a month later thanks to donations from the public.   

Have the scoop on an unusual person, place or event in your state?  Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States! 

Peruse the whole Strange States series here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.