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Florida's Skunk Ape

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Not even four days could cover all of the weird stuff happening in Florida...

The Skunk Ape: Bigfoot’s Foul-smelling Cousin

There may not be any giant penguins in Florida, but the jury’s still out on the existence of the Skunk Ape. Similar to the Pacific Northwest’s Bigfoot, the legends of an 8-foot-tall, very hairy primate stomping through the swamps of Florida, reeking of anything from rotten eggs to cow manure to its namesake mammal, have been circulating for decades.

Most sightings tell of a large man-ape lurking in the backyard or appearing out of nowhere on the side of the road late at night, before it goes running back into the woods. Some physical evidence has surfaced, such as plaster casts of footprints or fuzzy photos and video, but no such creature has ever been captured or killed. The sightings hit a peak in the 1960s and '70s, but there are always a few every year, keeping the legend alive.  

The sightings became so common in the 1970s that many thought it was only a matter of time before a Skunk Ape was caught.  So, in 1977, State Representative Paul Nuckolls (R) from Fort Myers tried to pass House bill 1664 (HB1664) which would make it a misdemeanor to “take, possess, harm or molest anthropoid or humanoid animals.”  

“I’d hate to see someone catch one and put it in a circus or in a zoo,” Nuckolls said. Although the “Skunk Ape Bill” made it through Committee, it was withdrawn before an official vote could be taken by the House. Undeterred, Nuckolls tried again the follow year with HB58, but it too got shot down before a vote could be taken.  

Perhaps the best-known and most compelling of the Skunk Ape stories comes from an anonymous letter sent to the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office in December 2000 from a concerned woman who claimed the “orangutan” in the accompanying photos could cause a car accident if not caught soon. The photos show a large, ape-like creature partially concealed behind saw palmetto leaves. Many believe the creature is too large to be an orangutan, but insist it must be the elusive Skunk Ape. Of course, with the anonymous nature of the letter, it’s also very easy to dismiss the photos as a hoax. Sadly, the woman who sent the letter has never come forward to provide more information. So for now anyway, the existence of Florida’s stinky sasquatch remains a mystery.

Come back tomorrow for the last—for this week, anyway—of our Florida entries, and check out 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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]