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25 Things You Should Know About Charleston

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South Carolina’s largest city is long on history and steeped in Southern charm. It’s also distinctly modern, with a lively performing arts scene and a lineup of foodie-approved restaurants putting a contemporary spin on Lowcountry favorites. There’s also Bill Murray. Here are a few things you might not know about Charleston.
 
1. In 1663, England’s King Charles II awarded the Carolina territory to eight loyal friends who had helped him regain the throne after years in exile. In 1670, the first expedition sailed across the Atlantic and established the province’s first settlement, which they called Charles Town. The name would hold until after the American Revolution, when victorious colonists shortened the name to Charleston.
 
2. The Ashley and Cooper Rivers, which border Charleston’s historic central district, are named for the same man. Anthony Ashley Cooper, formally known as the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, was one of King Charles’ buddies—or “Lord Proprietors,” as they were known. He’s credited with picking Charleston’s location (just west of where it’s currently situated), and with establishing a progressive “Grand Modell” for the town’s development along with his assistant, John Locke.

3. In 1761, two tornadoes—one barreling down the Ashley River, the other down the Cooper River—converged over Charleston’s harbor. So powerful was the combined twister, one witness wrote, that it “ploughed the Ashley River to the bottom and lay the channel bare.” Four people were killed and five ships sunk.  

4. Charleston was the frequent target of pirate attacks in its early days. In 1718, none other than Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard, attacked several ships trying to enter the harbor. He took hostages and ransomed them for a chest of medicine.


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5. Up until the early 19th century, Charleston had the largest Jewish population of any city in North America. Historians trace this to Cooper and Locke’s original charter, which expressed tolerance for all religions—well, except for Catholicism. Cooper and other English royals were not on good terms with the Roman Catholic Church. 

6. In 1776, colonists holed up in a makeshift fort on Sullivan's Island traded fire with nine British warships bent on conquering Charleston. The fort’s commander, William Moultrie, called it “one continual blaze and roar.” The battle lasted several hours, but Fort Sullivan’s palmetto logs held up against the barrage, and eventually the attacking fleet retreated. The effort staved off British occupation for four years and became a symbol of American resilience. The fort was renamed Fort Moultrie, in honor of its commander, and South Carolina adopted the flag Moultrie flew as its state flag, adding in an image of a palmetto tree for additional symbolic value.
 
7. Another famous fort didn’t fare as well, of course. In 1861, Confederate forces fired the Civil War’s first shots on Fort Sumter, situated in Charleston Harbor. According to writer Mary Chestnut, locals took in the 34-hour spectacle in a very Southern fashion: Sitting on their porches, toasting to the event.
 
8. Stroll around Charleston and you’ll notice numerous homes accented with a dark green known as Charleston Green. The story goes that after the Civil War, the Union sent buckets of black paint for residents to use when fixing up their damaged homes. Rather than use only Yankee black, however, citizens mixed in a bit of Southern yellow and created the distinctively dark hue. 

 


9.
In 2008, the Toni Morrison Society—inspired by her comments about the need for memorials dedicated to the victims of America's slave trade—built a bench on Sullivan's Island, where nearly 40 percent of slaves landed following the Middle Passage. This was the first monument in the society’s “Bench by the Road” project, which has placed benches around the world in locations significant to slavery and black history. 

10. There are numerous stories about why the colonial-era houses along Charleston’s Rainbow Row are so colorful. One states that the colors helped drunken sailors identify their lodgings, while another says merchants used them to identify goods sold in each building. The truth, though, is decidedly less colorful: In 1935, a judge and his wife decided to paint their home a lively pink, and their neighbors followed suit. 

11. On August 31, 1886, the largest earthquake ever recorded in the southeast United States occurred near Charleston. The 7.8-magnitude quake, which damaged buildings in states as far away as Ohio, killed 60 people and caused more than $5 million in damages. Included in that estimate were more than 14,000 destroyed chimneys.

12. A local orphanage significantly influenced the development of jazz music in South Carolina and throughout the U.S. Established in 1891 by the Reverend Daniel J. Jenkins, the Jenkins Orphanage taught its young residents how to read and play music on donated instruments. It also formed the Jenkins Orphanage Band, which traveled the country. Over time, the students developed a swinging style that became a hit with audiences far and wide. While touring in New York, the band’s playful dance moves (borrowed from Charleston’s Geechie culture), inspired composer James P. Johnson, who composed a song called “The Charleston.” Along with the accompanying dance, it quickly became a nationwide craze and a symbol of the jazz age.   

13. Local author DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel Porgy offered readers a look at Charleston’s Gullah community, and inspired George Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess. To get a close look at the culture of Catfish Row, in 1934 Gershwin decamped from New York and spent the summer living on Folly Island, where he composed alongside Heyward. 

14. In 1969, workers at the South Carolina Medical College Hospital went on strike to protest substandard pay and working conditions for minorities. The strike, which lasted four months, resulted in improvements for employees, and became a model for healthcare labor efforts. It’s also seen as a seminal moment in the Civil Rights movement, having drawn the support of such luminaries as Coretta Scott King and Ralph Abernathy. 

15. For seventeen days every summer, Charleston’s theaters, churches, and other performance spaces fill up with live music, plays, operas, and dance numbers. The Spoleto Festival, modeled after a similar festival in Italy, features new and established performers from around the world. Yo-Yo Ma played at the inaugural festival in 1978, shortly after graduating from Harvard [PDF].
 
16. The first theater in America, the Dock Street Theatre, was built in 1736 on the corner of Church and Dock Street. It burned down just a few years later, in 1740, but 200 years later the city built a new Dock Street Theatre, which continues to stage performances to this day.



17. And speaking of firsts, the Charleston Museum is widely believed to be the country’s oldest museum. Founded in 1773 as a storehouse for natural and local history collections, the museum is today dedicated to preserving and showcasing artifacts from South Carolina’s Lowcountry. 

18. Charleston may not have a pro sports team, but it does have a Gaelic hurling club and a roller derby league called the Lowcountry Highrollers.
 
19. Charleston’s minor league baseball team, meanwhile, is partly owned by Bill Murray. Because of course it is. Murray, whose official title with the team is “Director of Fun,” owns a home near Charleston and can be frequently spotted around town. 

20. The city’s restaurant scene has exploded over the past several years, with chefs like Sean Brock and Mike Lata putting a contemporary spin on traditional Lowcountry cuisine. Husk, one of the city’s hotspots, only sources ingredients from below the Mason Dixon line, while Xiao Bao Biscuit serves what it calls “Asian Soul Food.” Of course, establishments like Martha Lou’s Kitchen and Bowen’s Island Restaurant, which have been pleasing locals and tourists alike for decades, may wonder what all the fuss is about.
 
21. South Carolina’s oldest public building is a former gunpowder storage facility called the Powder Magazine. Built in 1713, back when Charleston was walled in to protect against land and sea attacks, the small building features three-foot thick walls and a thin, gabled roof—an ingenious design that, were all that powder to ignite, would send the explosion shooting upwards rather than outwards.
 
22. One of Charleston’s most famous sons, Stephen Colbert, grew up on James Island. After his father and two brothers died tragically in a 1974 plane crash, Colbert’s mother moved the family to East Bay Street in the city’s downtown, where she ran a now-defunct bed and breakfast. 

 
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23.
The Charleston City Market is one of the country’s oldest public markets. First opened in 1804, it featured meat, fish, and vegetable vendors, and was notorious for the flocks of buzzards (affectionately called “Charleston Eagles”) that would swoop down for scraps. These days, the market features an enclosed, air-conditioned Great Hall as well as open-air sheds selling everything from handmade baskets to stone-ground grits.

24. The first golf club in North America, the South Carolina Golf Club, opened in 1786 on a peninsula field known as Harleston Green (really!). Back then, the ball was known as a “feathery,” and the holes didn’t have flags, tee boxes or a putting green. 

25. All of Charleston’s traditional multi-level homes, or “single houses,” feature piazzas that face south or west in order to take advantage of cooling breezes. Back in the 18th and 19th century, that was the closest residents could get to air conditioning.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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