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25 Things You Should Know About Houston

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In the state where everything’s bigger, Houston looms particularly large. How large? If it were its own country, Houston’s economy would rank 30th in the world. In terms of physical size, a loop around the city on Beltway 8 covers 88 miles. Throw in the world’s largest medical center, rodeo, commercial port, and the Johnson Space Center, and you’ve got the ten-gallon hat version of an American metropolis. Yet for all its size, the Bayou City has plenty of charm, sophistication, and a restaurant scene that’s become one of the hottest in the south. Here are a few things you might not know about Houston. 

1. It’s named after Sam Houston, the military commander-turned-politician who led the battle for Texas’s independence from Mexico. In addition to serving as the first president of the Texas republic, Houston opposed secession, was an honorary member of the Cherokee nation, and once beat a U.S. congressman with his cane for calling him a fraud.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

From 1837 to 1839, Houston was the capital of Texas. This came after the town founders, brothers Augustus Chapman Allen and John Kirby Allen, promised the Texas congress generous land and building incentives. In the span of four months, the population of Houston grew from twelve residents and one log cabin to more than 1500 residents and a hundred homes. And even though the capital soon shifted 150 miles west to Waterloo (soon renamed Austin), the Allen brothers’ move gave Houston a crucial early boost.

3. To bring commerce to the city in its early days, the Allen brothers claimed that ships could sail “without obstacle” [PDF] from New York to Houston. Never mind that no ship had yet made the journey, or even made its way up the winding, debris-clogged Buffalo Bayou to dock at Houston. In 1837, the small steamship Laura finally managed the trip from Harrisburg—a 12-mile voyage that took three days.

4. Despite rough waters early on, today Houston is one of the busiest port cities in the nation. Its 25-mile long system of commercial docks is one of the largest in the country, and brings in more foreign tonnage per year than any other port.

5. During the Texas oil boom, Houston was home to a group of tycoons who had quickly (and quietly) become the richest men in the country. The most notorious of these men was Glenn McCarthy, the son of an oil worker from Beaumont who struck it rich as a “wildcatter” digging wells throughout the state. McCarthy spent lavishly, regularly sinking into debt before seeing his fortunes rise again with the flow of Texas gold. In 1949, he built the $21 million Shamrock Hotel in Houston, and hosted an over-the-top opening party, attended by 3000 people, that included numerous Hollywood celebrities and a chaotic live national television broadcast. The Houston Chronicle called it “bedlam in diamonds.” McCarthy sold the Shamrock to the Hilton family several years later to pay off his debts, but still couldn’t keep himself from purchasing 14 newspapers, a collection of local bars, and his own “Wildcatter” brand of bourbon. He served as the inspiration for Jett Rink in Edna Ferber’s novel Giant (played in the movie version by James Dean), and has gone down in history as the quintessential Texas oilman and “King of the Wildcatters.”

Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries

In 1935, local businessman Will Horwitz built an underground tunnel that connected three of his downtown movie theaters. Inspired by the passageways beneath Rockefeller Center in New York, the tunnels included a penny arcade, shops, and a wine tavern. Over the next few decades, private companies added to the tunnels, creating a system that today spans six miles and connects 95 city blocks.

7. The Texas Medical Center, the largest medical center in the world, sees 7.2 million patient visits per year. That’s more than three times the population of Houston.

8. NASA’s Johnson Space Center was originally awarded to Tampa Bay. But after military officials there declined to shut down MacDill Air Force Base, the contract went to the search committee’s number two city, Houston. It didn’t hurt that many Washington politicians at the time were from Texas, including Lyndon Johnson and house speaker Sam Rayburn [PDF].

9. Houston is the largest city in the country without formal zoning laws. But that doesn’t mean there are chemical plants next to luxury high rises, or skyscrapers built in the middle of city parks. Instead, the city relies on local ordinances, deeds, and other measures to regulate building codes while still keeping the real estate market nimble.

10. Subversive art and car culture collide at Houston’s Art Car Museum. Also known as “Garage Mahal,” the museum features a rotating cast of decked-out autos, including a cockroach-themed “Roachster” and a trippy six-wheeled space buggy.

Houston is also home to the National Museum of Funeral History, where you can see exhibits dedicated to the history of embalming, the deaths of popes, presidential funerals, and mourning in the 19th century. You’ll also be happy to know the museum is available for private rental.

12. Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the country, with 145 different languages spoken by its residents. This includes 15,000 French speakers, 17,000 Arabic speakers, and just 25 Welsh speakers.

13. Houston’s theater district, home to nine performing arts organizations in a 17-block area, has the second highest concentration of theater seating of any city in the nation—according to city officials, anyway. Skeptics point out that numerous other cities make the same claim.

14. Spanning 20 days in March, Houston’s rodeo and livestock show is one of the largest in the world. Started as the Houston Fat Stock Show in 1931, the exhibition grew beyond heifers and hogs to include skill competitions and live music performances, beginning with Gene Autry in 1941. In 1970, 44,000 people filled the Astrodome to watch Elvis Presley perform. These days, RodeoHouston, as it's known, sees 2.5 million attendees and hosts a wide range of events, including a barbecue cook-off, flower show, and bull riding.

Located on Malone Street in west Houston, the Beer Can House is exactly what it sounds like: a house covered with more than 50,000 beer cans. Owner John Milkovisch, a retired railroad worker, started the project in 1968, and over the course of 18 years added empty cans that he, his wife Mary, and his neighbors consumed. Today, the house is considered an example of folk art and is undergoing restoration efforts. Milkovisch, for his part, never thought too deeply about the project: “I guess I just thought it was a good idea. And it’s easier than painting.”

16. One of Houston’s most popular museums, Bayou Bend, is the former home of Ima Hogg, a Texas governor’s daughter who transcended her name to become one of Houston’s most influential philanthropists. Located in the city’s River Oak district, the museum features fine art, silver, and furnishings, along with an ornate organic garden that’s featured, among other flora, the first azaleas brought to Houston.

17. To help fund its newest album, pioneering Houston hip-hop group Geto Boys recently ran a Kickstarter campaign that featured a custom-made casket as a funding gift. Sadly, the group that gave the world “Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta” (immortalized in the movie Office Space) didn’t hit its funding goal, though they’re still moving forward with the album, Habeus Corpus, their first in ten years.

18. Before they were the Astros, Houston’s Major League Baseball team was called the Colt .45s. The name, chosen via an open contest put on by the owners, lasted for three seasons, from 1962 to 1964. Club officials’ switch to the “Astros” reflected Houston’s space-age ambitions: “The name was taken from the stars and indicates we are on the ascendancy,” club president Roy Hofheinz said at the time.

19. Once known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” Houston’s Astrodome has fallen on hard times. The Astros stopped playing there in 1999, and other events moved on to alternative venues. In 2008, the facility shut down due to numerous code violations, and since then it has sat empty as city officials try to decide what to do with it. Recent proposals have included an aviary, a hotel, the new state capitol, and an air-conditioned indoor park with underground parking.


Houstonians eat out an average of 4.8 times per week, and spend roughly 6 percent of their income in doing so, making them some of the nation’s most diligent restaurant patrons. Good thing they have more than 11,000 spots to choose from.

21. When dining out, you could go to an upscale steakhouse like Del Frisco’s, enjoy local seafood at Danton’s or sample vegan fare at Roots Bistro. Or you could ignore decorum altogether and get the Cheesy Cheeto Burger at the Hubcap Grill. Yes, that’s a burger topped with Cheetos and cheese sauce.

22. The nickname “Bayou City” may seem at odds with Houston’s urban sprawl. Nevertheless, the city is crisscrossed with bayous, rivers and other waterways—more than 2500 miles worth, in fact.

23. Houston is home to the first traditional Indian temple, or mandir, in North America. Originally built in 1988, Shri Swaminarayan Mandir was upgraded in 2004 to a temple made of Turkish limestone and Italian marble that workers built in India, and then shipped in pieces—33,000 of them—to Texas to be assembled like a huge 3D jigsaw puzzle. It took volunteer builders two years and 1.3 million combined hours to put the pieces together.

24. Queen Bey, a.k.a. Beyoncé Knowles, got off to a superstar start in her hometown of Houston. At age 7, she beat out competitors twice her age in a talent show, bringing the audience to its feet with a soulful rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

25. If you’re strolling along the river walk beneath the Preston Street bridge, and you see a red button, go ahead and push it. It’ll cause bubbles to erupt from the bayou nearby. The project, called the Big Bubble, is a creative way to aerate the water, and to startle other pedestrians as well as kayakers.

Dean Ruck's Big Bubble from Douglas Robertson on Vimeo.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]