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The World's Largest Key Collection

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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.

This time we head to the Centennial State—Colorado—for a taste of artistic flair on a very large scale, as well as a little hideaway in the mountains that has the key to our hearts (and to the Pentagon).  

Denver’s Mile High Animal Art Installations

Denver Convention Center

Denver, Colorado has one of the most vibrant public art scenes in the country, with murals, abstract statues, and commemorative monuments available almost everywhere you go.  But for whatever reason, one of the most common motifs is bigger-than-life-sized animals.

It’s hard to miss one of the most famous pieces of big animal art in the Mile High City, because it’s right there to greet you at the Denver International Airport.  Mustang—a 32-foot tall, cobalt blue, fiberglass horse—was installed in 2008 after being commissioned 15 years earlier from artist Luis Jiménez. Since then, the stallion, with its fiery red eyes, has been met with a mix of praise and criticism, with some passengers saying the horse causes added anxiety for those already afraid of flying. Sadly, Jiménez isn’t around to defend his work; he died in 2006, after a piece of the 9000-pound horse fell on him in his workshop. 

For anxious flyers, The Yearling at the Denver Public Library is a much more subdued example of equine art.  But what it lacks in devilry, it makes up for in oddity.  Originally created in 1997 by David Lipski for a Manhattan elementary school, the statue features a 21-foot tall, bright red desk chair like one seen in a child’s classroom.  Perched atop the chair’s seat, though, is a six-foot tall Pinto pony looking forlornly into the distance. Lipski wanted viewers to recall a time in their life when everyday objects seemed monumental, but the school felt the horse was a bit too much. Lipski refused to remove the pony, so the statue instead found its way to Denver a year later.

Speaking of giant farm animals, Dan Ostermiller’s Scottish Angus Cow and Calf statues at the Denver Art Museum have become local favorites since their unveiling in 2001.  The gigantic bronze bovines—the calf is 10 feet high and 14 feet long, while mama is 13 feet high and 24 feet long, with a combined weight of nearly 16,000 pounds—are an excellent reminder of Denver’s history as a cattle town.

If you’re looking for a new best friend, head over to the Denver Animal Shelter and adopt one of the four-legged variety. Don’t know where it’s located? Just look for the 25-foot tall dog made of shiny new dog tags. Sun Spot is the 2011 creation of artists Laura Haddad and Tom Drugan, who first built a steel skeleton, overlayed it with stainless steel mesh, and then covered it by hand in 90,000 pet tags like the kind usually found on Fido’s collar.  It’s been said that “Spot” makes quite an impression when the sun reflects off the tags as they’re blowing in the breeze, making him a good boy—such a good boy!—on the Denver public art scene.  

The last big animal to invade Denver is a big, blue bear that would make Paul Bunyan reconsider his relationship with Babe. Since 2005, I See What You Mean (above), a 40-foot tall statue of a blue bear standing on its hind legs, has been looking into the windows of the Colorado Convention Center, scaring and delighting visitors alike. The massive bear was first constructed by artist Lawrence Argent as a small, scale model, created using a computer and a 3-D printer. The bear was originally meant to be more reflective of the natural landscape of Colorado, with shades of brown and tan, but the model accidentally came out of the printer blue instead.  Argent was struck by the color of the prototype and decided “the bear had to be blue.” The statue is constructed in six segments, and made of 4000 interlocking triangles that hang on a hidden steel armature, giving him a very geometric appearance. Unlike that other big, blue beast at the airport, the bear has been embraced by Denverites, who now consider him a city icon. 

Baldpate Inn Key Collection

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There are only 12 guest rooms at the Baldpate Inn near Estes Park, Colorado, and yet they have somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 keys hanging from the rafters and covering the walls. The keys, believed to be the largest collection in the world, are donations from the many guests who have stayed at the inn since World War I. As the years have gone on, regular guests have started a friendly competition, with each one trying to outdo everyone else by donating ever more exotic keys to ever more exotic locations. Included in the collection are keys purported to open doors at the Pentagon, Westminster Abbey, the Vatican, the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, and even the drawers on one of Adolf Hitler’s desks.

Recently, the management at the Baldpate started working with American History Savers, an archiving company, to document and organize the keys in the collection. Not only are they placing the most important specimens in their own section of the display, but they’re also working out a computerized system that will allow them to find any key—no matter how obscure the donor. I wonder if they could come up with a similar system for my wife’s purse.    

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!   

See all the states in the Strange States series so far here.

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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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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.

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