CLOSE

South Dakota's Wall Drug 

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 week we’re headed to South Dakota, home of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, famous Lakota Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, and that big statue you might remember from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

WALL DRUG

The Strange States series has highlighted a lot of odd roadside attractions—including The Thing in Arizona, Indiana’s giant ball of paint, and a museum in Missouri that features nothing but hair—so we’d be remiss not to mention one of the original tourist hot spots in America, Wall Drug.

The story of Wall Drug begins in 1931 when Ted and Dorothy Hustead moved to the small town of Wall, S.D. Using part of a $3000 inheritance he’d received from his father, Ted bought out the local pharmacy and began serving the community of 230 people. Business was slow until 1936 when the Mount Rushmore monument became a patriotic vacation destination.

In the days before air conditioned cars and the establishment of the Interstate Highway system, weary travelers were always on the lookout for someplace to stop for a drink and a chance to get out of their bumpy cars, especially while traversing the lonely, hot plains of South Dakota in the middle of summer. So Dorothy had the idea of putting up hand-painted signs along Route 16A leading to Rushmore advertising free ice water at Wall Drug. Before Ted had even returned to the store from putting out the first batch of signs, 30 people were already lined up at the counter enjoying their free water, but also buying five cent cups of coffee, sodas, snacks, and other road trip frivolties. The roadside signs became a signature hook of Wall Drug, and by the 1960s, at the peak of the summer vacation era, there were over 3000 signs spread out over every state in the Union.

Despite the nationwide name recognition, Wall Drug was little more than a small pharmacy, snack pit stop, and souvenir shop until the 1970s, when Ted handed the business over to his son Bill. Bill expanded the business to a sprawling 76,000 complex with dozens of ways to entertain travelers.

Today, there’s a mock diamond mine where youngsters can don hard hats and pick axes, then sluice for precious gems or fossils. The replica Old West train station and its splash fountains is a big hit in the summer. You’ll also find a fiberglass Jackalope wearing a saddle that’s large enough to climb on, as well as a few bucking bronco statues, all of which have become popular photo ops.

If you need a bite to eat, Wall Drug has an ice cream and soda fountain, a fudge shop, a donut factory, and a cafe with a full menu of hot meals. Perhaps you’d prefer a latte or an espresso while you browse the “Largest Private Western Art Collection in the Country,” filled with hundreds of paintings and statues in the gallery.

Naturally, you can buy souvenirs like t-shirts, beer koozies, and trucker caps, but the stores inside also carry wall-mounted Jackalopes, Black Hills gold jewelry, Native American artifacts, and Bobbleheaded celebrities. And, believe it or not, there is actually a working pharmacy inside, where you can get a prescription filled while you’re on the road.

To add to the circus atmosphere, there are a host of animatronic wonders, including a cowboy orchestra and a Tyrannosaurus Rex straight out of Jurassic Park. And speaking of dinosaurs, you can’t miss the 80-foot long bright green Apatosaurus with blazing headlight eyes that calls to cars on nearby Interstate 90 like a lighthouse in a storm.

It’s estimated that nearly 2 million people visit Wall Drug every year where they can still get free ice water and a five cent coffee, as well as just about anything else their heart may desire in the middle of nowhere South Dakota.

Read all the entries in our Strange State series here.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
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
Opening Ceremony
fun
arrow
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
Original image
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:

501069-OpeningCeremony2.jpg

Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

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]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES