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Chloe Effron

25 Impressive Facts About North Dakota

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Chloe Effron

For much of the population, North Dakota remains kind of a mystery. There are no obvious tourist destinations, and most people would be hard-pressed to name its capital. (Hint: it doesn’t share a name with a Coen brothers movie.) Here are 25 things you probably didn’t know about the upper Dakota:

1. It’s either the 39th or the 40th state—no one’s sure. Once upon a time, the two Dakotas were joined in the Dakota Territory. Due to various political squabbles, they entered into the Union as two separate states, North and South Dakota. But President Benjamin Harrison purposely made it impossible to tell which state came into the Union first, shuffling the papers and signing them without looking so that not even he would know. However, because of the order of the alphabet, North Dakota is generally listed as the 39th. 

2. It’s the only state with a state-owned bank. The Bank of North Dakota is headquartered in Bismarck. Many other states have considered establishing their own state-owned-and-operated financial institutions recently, in part because the Bank of North Dakota fared so well during the 2007 recession compared to larger banks. 

3. Fargo wasn’t filmed there. Much of the Coen brothers’ 1996 film takes place in Minnesota, and much of it was shot in and around Minneapolis. Only some exterior snow shots of North Dakota’s largest city appear in the film. The town was snubbed by the crew of the FX television show Fargo as well. It’s shot in Canada

Construction in Williston, an oil boomtown. Image Credit: Getty Images

4. It has some of the highest rents in America. A 2014 study found that a one-bedroom in Williston, North Dakota rented for almost $2400 a month, compared to $1500 in New York City. Over the past decade, the rise of fracking has meant an expansion of the oil and gas industry in the state, making cities like Williston boom towns. As thousands of people have flocked to find high-paying jobs in remote areas, housing demand—and rent—has skyrocketed. It’s now the fastest-growing state, with a population that grew 12.5 percent between 2010 and 2015. State officials estimate that North Dakota has 15,000 more jobs than its current population can fill.

5. It’s got a lot of farmland. Almost 90 percent of the state's total land is devoted to farms and ranches.  

6. Your beans probably came from there. The state is the largest producer of dry beans, honey, wheat, flaxseed, and canola in the nation [PDF]. 

7. It birthed a famous cowboy song. “Red River Valley” shares its name with the valley that runs down the North Dakota-Minnesota border from Canada, and has been named one of the top Western songs of all time. The folk song has been published under various names over the decades, including those referring to other regions, like “Bright Mohawk Valley,” but Canadian scholar Edith Fowke contends it was originally about the Red River Valley, which travels from south of Fargo up into Lake Winnipeg.  

8. You probably won’t find a CVS, Rite Aid, or Walgreens there. State law requires most pharmacies to be owned by local pharmacists, meaning that national chains can’t operate pharmacies there. A 2014 attempt to change the law failed

Salem Sue. Image Credit: Bobjgalindo via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-A 4.0


9. It likes its animal statues big. New Salem, North Dakota is home to Salem Sue, the world’s largest statue of a Holstein cow. It’s 38 feet high, even taller than the world’s largest bison statue, a 26-foot-tall monument to the buffalo in Jamestown

10. It’s the host of North America’s largest Scandinavian festival. Tens of thousands of people attend Norsk Høstfest in Minot, North Dakota every year to celebrate the state’s Nordic heritage. Immigrants from Nordic countries like Sweden, Iceland, and Denmark flocked to North Dakota in the late 19th century, and in 1914, Norwegian immigrants and their descendants owned one-fifth of all the land in North Dakota.

11. It holds one of the nation’s biggest powwows. Every year, 1500 Native American dancers and tribe members come together at the United Tribes International Powwow in Bismarck. This past September was the 45th event in Bismarck’s history. 

12. It used to have sea monsters. Some 80 million years ago, North Dakota was underwater. In 2006, an arrowhead collector turned up fossilized vertebrate far bigger than anything he’d ever seen. State paleontologists determined that the bones, found on a farm, were part of an almost-complete skeleton of the prehistoric swimming reptile called the mosasaur. The predator would have been around 50 feet long. 

Image Credit: National Atlas of the United States via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

13. It could have been half Canadian. The British ceded almost half of the territory that became the state of North Dakota in the Treaty of 1818. The treaty resolved previous border disputes between Britain and the United States by officially making the 49th parallel the line between the States and British North America, and giving America a big chunk of the territory that would become North Dakota. 

14. It was a hub of the 19th century fur trade. Fort Union, whose trading post is now a national historic site, was a vital stop for traders on the northern stretches of the Mississippi River. Northern Plains tribes traveled there each spring to trade buffalo and furs for other goods. The fort traded around $100,000 in merchandise each year between 1828 and 1867. 

15. Lewis and Clark spent more time there than in any other state. They spent the winter of 1804-1805 at a North Dakota camp they called Fort Mandan. It was there that they met the French Canadian trader Toussaint Charbonneau and his wife, Sacagawea, who became famous for assisting the explorers in their journey to the Pacific. 

16. North Dakota changed Theodore Roosevelt’s life. The future president came to hunt buffalo in the Badlands as a 24-year-old in 1883. After just two weeks there, he bought himself two cattle ranches, and when his wife and mother died a few months later, North Dakota became his escape. His time in the Dakota Territory helped him transform from an asthmatic New York City aristocrat into the rough-riding cowboy and game hunter he later became known as. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Image Credit: Desertson67 via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

17. It’s pretty good writing fodder. Prominent culture writer Chuck Klosterman grew up in the 400-person town of Wyndmere and got his big break with Fargo Rock City, his debut memoir about growing up as a metalhead in North Dakota. He has gone on to write several more books of essays and fiction, and credits his unique voice with being from Roughrider Country. "Every year there are thousands of new writers coming out of places like New York, and there are a lot less coming out of places like North Dakota," he told a Minnesota newspaper in 2015. “The valuable thing about the writer is their unmatched perspective."

18. It’s the home of the International Peace Garden. In 1932, the United States and Canada established a park as a symbol of peace and cooperation between the two countries. The 3.6-square-mile garden straddles North Dakota and Manitoba. It’s technically part of neither country, so you have to go through border patrol to get back to whatever country you came from—meaning you better bring an ID. 

19. It’s where Phil Jackson learned to play basketball. The former championship-winning coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers got his start playing varsity basketball at his high school in Williston, North Dakota. The school later named its sports complex after him.  

20. It holds an annual Potato Bowl. The Potato Bowl USA dates back to 1966, when the University of North Dakota’s football coach organized a competition between his team and Idaho State, a team from North Dakota’s rival in potato production. Now the event has expanded to include potato pancake breakfasts, the self-described “World’s Largest French Fry Feed,” and fry eating contests (as well as football). 

21. Yes, it’s cold. The Daily Beast has named three North Dakota cities on its list of “America’s 25 coldest cities.” Grand Forks, Bismarck, and Fargo rank No. 2-4, respectively. 

22. But summer is extreme there, too. The state’s highest temperature on record was set when the town of Steele reached 121° F in July of 1936. 

Sitting Bull around 1885. Image Credit: David Francis Barry via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain


23. Sitting Bull might be buried there. The Lakota spiritual leader, whose forces defeated General Custer at Little Bighorn (one of the most significant victories of Native Americans against the U.S. Army) was initially buried at Fort Yates, North Dakota, where he was killed in 1890. In the 1950s, a group of businessmen acting with the blessing of some of the chief’s descendants dug up his remains and moved them to Mobridge, South Dakota. But there’s some controversy over whether it was Sitting Bull who was actually exhumed in the middle-of-the-night raid. Some still theorize that the real body of Sitting Bull remains in North Dakota. And to throw a little more mystery in, one Sioux historian claims he was actually buried secretly in Canada.  

24. It has its own state horse breed. The Nokota horse is descended from feral horses that were hemmed in when Theodore Roosevelt National Park was created, accidentally protecting the herds from being killed by ranchers or government agencies that viewed them as competition for grazing livestock. Some of them still run wild in the park, while others have been captured and adopted out. It became the official state horse breed in 1993. 

25. There are more cattle than people. North Dakota has about 1.75 million cattle, and just under 740,000 people, meaning that there are more than two cows for every person in the state. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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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.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

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.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

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.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

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.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

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.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

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.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

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.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

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.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

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.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

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.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

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.

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