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15 Things You Might Not Know About Yellowstone National Park

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Celebrated for its flora, fauna, geological structures, and sprawling landscapes, Yellowstone National Park is undoubtedly one of the country’s greatest centers of natural beauty. But there's more to this park than Old Faithful—and here are 15 highlights. 

1. YELLOWSTONE IS THE WORLD’S SECOND OLDEST NATIONAL PARK.

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The official date of establishment of Yellowstone National Park was March 1, 1872, making it the first park of its kind to earn the designation in North America. While Yellowstone is sometimes heralded as the oldest national park on earth, it is 96 years younger than Mongolia’s Bogd Khan Uul.

2. HALF OF THE WORLD’S GEOTHERMAL FEATURES ARE LOCATED IN YELLOWSTONE.

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One of the park’s most popular attractions is its collection of geothermal features, an umbrella term that includes geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, mudpots, and travertine terraces. With tens of thousands of such phenomena, Yellowstone is home to more than half of the world’s supply of geothermal features and approximately 75 percent of the world’s geysers. The park has an estimated 1283 geysers spread across nine geyser basins.

3. NOBODY BELIEVED EARLY WITNESSES OF THE GEYSERS.

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John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, spent the winter of 1807 and '08 on a solo journey through the wilderness of what is now Wyoming. Colter tried to share stories of what he had seen, but details of his travels describing a land of “fire and brimstone” were widely rebuffed as delusions. Almost 50 years later, independent explorer Jim Bridger returned from Yellowstone with accounts of boiling springs and waters sprouting from the ground—his reports met the same skepticism that dogged Colter. 

4. THE LARGEST GEYSER IN THE WORLD LIVES IN YELLOWSTONE (AND IT’S NOT THE ONE YOU’RE THINKING OF).

Old Faithful, located in the Upper Geyser Basin, may be the most famous geyser on the planet, and for good reason: The punctual, easily calculated intervals between eruptions have earned it global celebration. But Old Faithful’s cousin in the Norris Geyser Basin trumps it in terms of sheer size. The Steamboat Geyser, which is capable of producing 300-foot-high eruptions of water, is the tallest active geyser on the planet.

5. THE PARK MAY BE FATAL TO BISON. 

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After more than a century of benign activity, in 2004 the geysers of the Norris Geyser Basin earned a toxic reputation when their emissions were deemed responsible for killing five roaming bison. Park scientists determined that a meteorological anomaly provoked an unusually high—and ultimately fatal—concentration of the basin’s fumes at ground level. Prior to this grisly moment, the last major mass gas fatality was in 1899, when several grizzly bears suffered a similar fate.

6. THAT SAID, THE BISON POPULATION REMAINS INTACT. 

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The Yellowstone grounds house America’s oldest and largest natural herd of bison. 

7. INITIALLY, THE U.S. ARMY WAS STATIONED AT YELLOWSTONE.

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In 1882, avowed nature lover and Civil War hero General Philip Sheridan led an expedition that took him to Yellowstone. While Sheridan was duly impressed with the park’s aesthetic wonder, he was aghast at the presence of monopolist organizations running amok throughout the territory at the expense of the land. After Congress stripped away funding for Yellowstone, he dispatched Captain Moses Harris, a Union soldier who had served under Sheridan and who shared his ecological ideologies, to lead troops to Yellowstone, protecting it against commercial poaching, the spread of wildfire, and maladies of all kinds. The armed forces stood guard over the park until 1918, when the establishment of the National Park Service usurped the military’s involvement with Yellowstone. The rangers that took the soldiers’ positions were known as “spread eagle men.” 

8. THE TERRITORY BOASTS THE LARGEST SUPERVOLCANO IN THE U.S.

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The contiguous United States has more than its share of supervolcanoes—that is, volcanoes capable of producing more than 240 cubic miles of ejecta per eruption—with noteworthy examples living in California and New Mexico. But outweighing the pair is the Yellowstone Caldera: 45 miles long, 34 miles wide, and with a main magma chamber several times the size of the Grand Canyon. Though considered an active supervolcano, the caldera’s last eruption was 640,000 years ago.

9. YELLOWSTONE EXPERIENCES THOUSANDS OF EARTHQUAKES EVERY YEAR.

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A typical year sees between 1000 and 3000 earthquakes hit Yellowstone National Park. In January 2010, for instance, the park sustained 250 quakes in just two days. However, the vast majority of these tremors are so gentle they go completely unnoticed by human visitors.

10. ONE RARE AND MYSTERIOUS FLOWER ONLY GROWS IN YELLOWSTONE. 

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Nowhere in the world but in the lakeshores of Yellowstone National Park does the (aptly named) Yellowstone Sand Verbena grow. What’s particularly strange about the anomaly is that its genetic makeup would suggest that it’s suited to warmer climates. 

11. SOME OF THE MOST PRIMITIVE BACTERIA ON THE PLANET LIVE IN THE PARK. 

Another rare species that calls Yellowstone its home can be found thriving amid the gaseous emissions of the park’s hot springs. A particular strain of microbe, among the most primitive of any extant species, feeds off the area’s plentiful carbon dioxide and hydrogen resources.

12. THE U.S. GOVERNMENT ERADICATED, AND THEN RESTORED, YELLOWSTONE’S WOLF POPULATION.

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In the 1910s, Congress grew nervous about Yellowstone’s hunting wolves. Fearing that the predatory prowess of the park’s lupine population would result in an extinction of the local elk and other ungulates, Congress funded a systematic killing of any and all wolves inhabiting the area. Between 1914 and 1926, the act resulted in the elimination of 136 wolves, rendering Yellowstone virtually free of its apex predator. Unfortunately, Congress hadn’t prepared for the hike in prevalence of sick and lame animals, formerly the easiest targets for preying wolves. 

Forty years later, the government began to have a change of heart. Congress met with biologists concerned about the threat of elk overpopulation, discussing the merits in reintroducing wolves into their former habitat. The debate ended in 1995 when the government began transporting gray wolf packs to the Yellowstone grounds. Data collected in 2005 reflected a healthy recovery of the wolf population in and around the Yellowstone area.

13. YELLOWSTONE IS THE SUBJECT OF A LEGAL ANOMALY. 

All Yellowstone National Park territory falls under the legal jurisdiction of the United States District Court for the District of Wyoming. However, only 96 percent of Yellowstone falls within Wyoming state lines; the remaining four percent is split between Montanan and Idahoan land. This makes Wyoming’s the only district court to oversee land in more than one state. 

14. THE PARK HAS ITS OWN JUDICIAL SYSTEM. 

The previous point is more than just legal trivia. While Yellowstone offers a treasure trove of spectacles that any visitor should make a point to see, the park’s jail isn’t a must-see destination. As of 2006, Yellowstone boasts its own justice system, which includes a courtroom, presiding judge, and four holding cells. Furthermore, major crimes that occur on park grounds fall under the legal jurisdiction of one specifically assigned FBI Agent.

15. THE PARK IS HOME TO THE MOST REMOTE LOCATION IN THE CONTIGUOUS UNITED STATES.

Thirty-two miles separates any road, residence, or establishment from the ironically named Thorofare area, which earns it designation as the most isolated location in all of continental America. While hikers and campers are welcome to explore the grounds, which traverse both Yellowstone National Park and the Teton Wilderness, visitors are forbidden from tarnishing its rustic beauty with electrical devices or automobiles. The only way to get there is by horseback or, if you’ve got the energy, your own two feet.

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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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