Original image
Sharknado at Facebook

9 Silly Sharks to Prepare You for Shark Week

Original image
Sharknado at Facebook

The Discovery Channel held their first Shark Week promotion in 1987. In the 27 years since then, the seemingly educational series of programming has “jumped the shark,” so to speak, and slid into entertainment, and even more recently, into cryptozoology. This year’s Shark Week will begin Sunday, August 10. To get you ready for this year's Shark Week, here are some of the silliest sharks in pop culture history.

1. Land Shark

During the fourth episode of Saturday Night Live, the Not Ready for Prime Time Players did a spoof of the movie Jaws called “Jaws II,” featuring the character Land Shark, voiced by Chevy Chase, who would talk through doors, trying to get people to open up so he could attack. The shark was so popular, it became a recurring skit. Land Shark appeared in eight episodes of Saturday Night Live, mostly during the show’s first three seasons.

2. Jabberjaw

Jabberjaw was an anthropomorphic great white shark with his own band (he played drums) in the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series of the same name. It aired from 1976 to 1978, although the second season was all repeats. With the help of his four teenage bandmates, Jabberjaw solved mysteries. That basic plot may seem a bit familiar to you.

3. Bruce

In the Disney-Pixar movie Finding Nemo, Bruce is the leader of a group of sharks who have pledged to stop eating fish, and have formed a support group. Although he is earnest in his goal of kicking the meat-eating habit, Bruce is sorely tempted by the slightest whiff of blood in the water. Strange as a vegetarian shark may seem, there is an analog in the real world, a shark named Florence who stopped eating meat after a surgical procedure and prefers vegetarian fare.

4. Lenny

Lenny, from the 2004 Dreamworks movie Shark Tale, is also a vegetarian. Although many thought Shark Tale was a ripoff of Finding Nemo, which was released a year earlier, both movies were in development at the same time. Still, if you were going to have two animated vegetarian sharks, would you name them Lenny and Bruce? The only way it would have been odder would be if Lenny Bruce had been a vegetarian.

5. The Shark that was Jumped

In the episode of the TV show Happy Days that gave us the now-familiar pop culture term, Fonzie jumped over a shark. On water skis. The stunt was so silly that the phrase “jump the shark” has come to mean the point at which a show is past its prime and begins to rely on stupid gimmicks to retain viewers. Oddly, that particular episode was a big hit and the series continued for seven more years. In retrospect, we can see how Happy Days changed considerably at about that point, but what it changed into was still appealing to the prime time audience of the day.

6. Sharknado

When it comes to silliness, no one does sharks better than SyFy. Last night was the premiere of the movie Sharknado 2: The Second One, the sequel to last year’s Sharknado, about a storm that carries huge man-eating sharks over land. The A.V. Club has a review of the sequel, which they pronounce as pretty good, considering that it’s a SyFy monster movie. You will be able to catch a repeat showing several times this weekend.

7. Sharktopus

The 2010 SyFy movie Sharktopus was about a genetically-engineered combination of shark and octopus. How this makes the creature any more terrifying than a regular shark only becomes clear when you see it grab people off land and walk on its tentacles. But it’s still silly.

8. Mega Shark

Asylum cranks out monster movies that go directly to home video. In 2009, they released Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus, which grabbed our collective consciousness with its trailer showing a giant shark leaping from the water and attacking an airplane. The relative success of Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus led to the sequels Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus and Mega Shark Versus Mecha Shark. Asylum later produced Sharknado for SyFy. Other, non-Asylum shark films that followed include Snow Shark, Sand Sharks, and Swamp Shark.

9. Megalodon

Now, there’s nothing silly about the ancient shark megalodon. According to fossil evidence, it could grow up to 60 feet long and thrived until about 1.5 million years ago, when it became extinct. I’m talking about the 2013 show Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives that anchored Shark Week last year. The show was labeled as fictional in a short disclaimer at the beginning and the end, but presented material in the form of a documentary, hinting that there is evidence of surviving megalodons existing in the wild. Many in the audience missed the disclaimers, and the scientific community responded with criticism for the Discovery Channel in that they were not only misleading their audience, but the whole idea of airing a fictional documentary was irresponsible and cheapened the educational tradition of Shark Week. However, it was the most-watched Shark Week show ever. You can see Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives in segments on the Discovery Channel’s site. This year’s Shark Week lineup has quite a few educational shows, dressed up in rather provocative names, and then down at the bottom you see a show called Megalodon: The New Evidence.

We’ve had a lot of articles about real sharks you should check out here at mental_floss.

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.