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Charles Fort, Chronicler of Unexplained Phenomena 

Original image
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1873 the sky rained frogs over Kansas City, Missouri. The Scientific American later reported that the amphibian shower “which darkened the air and covered the ground for a long distance” was the result of a recent rainstorm that swept through the area. It’s possible that the incident would have been left to collect dust in the annals of history if not for another event that took place a year later: the birth of Charles Fort.

Prior to his career as a researcher of unexplained phenomena, Charles was a curious kid growing up in Albany, New York. He felt socially anxious in school and had a poor grasp of math—which came through in his grades. But while he struggled academically, he found ways to satisfy his cravings for knowledge outside the classroom. He maintained a catalog of natural items that included minerals, nests, eggs, feathers, and organs from small animals pickled in jars of formaldehyde. He even went so far as to learn taxidermy so he could stuff and mount bird specimens at home. When his grandfather, a grocer and the father of a grocer, asked Charles what the boy wanted to be when he grew up, he was chagrined to hear the child respond: “a naturalist.”

Fort's life took a different path when he entered the journalism business at age 16. As a reporter for the Albany newspaper the Argus, he found an outlet for his inquisitive behavior. A few years later, he moved on to covering New York City news for the Brooklyn World. When two of his reporter friends left the paper to form the Woodhaven Independent, they appointed an 18-year-old Fort to be their editor.

Despite his rapid rise to success in his field, he still felt unfulfilled. As he wrote in his unpublished autobiography Many Parts, “I became a newspaper reporter [and] I arranged my experiences. I pottered over them quite as I had over birds’ eggs and minerals and insects.” But by limiting his experiences to a few sections of New York City, he feared he was trapping himself as a writer. Determined to “get together a vast capital of impressions of life,” he set off to travel the world alone after turning 19.

Fort imposed a few guidelines for his journey: He would wander spontaneously and refrain from looking for work, keeping a notebook, or anything else that might distract him from living in the moment. After visiting England, Scotland, South Africa, and the southern U.S., he returned home to New York ready to begin the next chapter of his life. He married Anna Filing, a friend he had known since childhood. She found comfort in domestic life as he pursued work as a fiction writer and took odd jobs.

Bess Lovejoy

Writing short stories for pulp magazines was a way for Fort to bring in supplemental income. Though he penned several novels during his lifetime, only one was ever published. The Outcast Manufacturers was a commercial failure and once again he blamed his struggles on lack of experience. Fort reflected on this period of his life years later by saying, “I was a realist, but knew few people; had few experiences for my material.” This time, instead of seeking enrichment abroad, he turned to the New York Public Library for inspiration.

What started as a search for story ideas eventually morphed into an obsession with the research itself. The old newspapers and scientific journals he sifted through contained gems too remarkable to fictionalize: On March 6, 1888, a blood-like substance dripped from the sky over the Mediterranean; in 1855 kangaroo-like tracks appeared in southern England; in 1872 a London house was bombarded with stones that came from no apparent source. Anomalous patterns appeared in every subject Fort explored, and he began collecting the stories like they were trinkets from his youth. By age 39 he was making daily trips to the library equipped with pocketfuls of blank sheets of paper for note-taking.

The cardboard boxes of notes he stored at home became the basis for a new project: a compilation of unexplained phenomena titled The Book of the Damned. When the book was released in 1919 there was nothing else on the shelves quite like it. A blurb on the dust jackets teased its contents: “In this amazing book—the result of twelve years of patient research—the author presents a mass of evidence that has hitherto been ignored or distorted by scientists.”

The book opens by introducing “the damned,” as in the damned “data that Science has excluded." As the work progresses, Fort presents evidence for dozens of oddities he encountered in his research, including strange weather patterns, poltergeists, cryptids (creatures that may or may not exist, like the Loch Ness Monster), and UFOs. A significant portion of the book is devoted to unusual objects raining from the heavens. In addition to frogs (which he cited as falling over Wigan, England and Toulouse, France, as well as Kansas City), Fort mentions showers of fish, eels, and insects.

He was quick to dismiss any theories that suggested the critters had been swept up from the ground by strong winds, instead positing the existence of a “Super-Sargasso Sea.” According to Fort, this place acted as a celestial dumping ground of sorts for “derelicts, rubbish, [and] old cargoes from inter-planetary wrecks” that sometimes leaked back down to Earth. The phrase has since stuck around as a place where lost things go, but Fort himself didn’t seem overly attached it. He followed up his explanation by writing, “Or still simpler. Here are the data. Make what you will, yourself, of them.”

Written in clipped and sometimes scatterbrained prose, the purpose of The Book of the Damned wasn’t to convince the reader of any concrete set of facts. Rather, Fort aimed to tear down the black-and-white thinking that prevailed among scientists of the time. Critics didn't buy it. The New York Times panned the book, saying it was “so obscured in the mass of words and quagmire of pseudo-science and queer speculation that the average reader will himself either be buried alive or insane before he reaches the end.” Science fiction writer H.G. Wells described it as beneath his attention, calling Fort “one of the most damnable bores who ever cut scraps from out-of-the-way newspapers.”

Readers, on the other hand, were hooked. The Book of the Damned sold well and it garnered enough interest in weird phenomena for Fort to publish three more non-fiction books on similar subjects—New Lands, Lo!, and Wild Talents.

When Charles Fort succumbed to leukemia on May 3, 1932 at age 57, he left behind a complicated legacy. He had inspired a cult following of self-described “Forteans” similarly interested in anomalous phenomena and skeptical of scientific dogma. The group is still going strong today, as anyone who attends The International Fortean Organization’s annual “Fortfest” or subscribes to The Fortean Times can see.

The media remembered him as less of an influencer than a crackpot, with both The New York Times and the The New York Herald Tribune painting him as a “Foe of Science” in their obituaries. But considering Fort viewed science as “established preposterousness,” that’s a characterization he likely wouldn’t have objected to.

Additional Source: Charles Fort, The Man Who Invented the Supernatural

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

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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