America’s First Theme Park Was All Santa, All the Time

What was the first theme park in the nation? If you guessed Disneyland, you’re going on the naughty list. In fact, it was called Santa Claus Land—a year-round Christmas idyll in the middle of the country that came into being before Walt Disney decided to make his brand a tourist destination.

To understand Santa Claus Land, you’ve got to understand its location: Santa Claus, Indiana. The town became forever associated with Christmas back in the 1850s, when residents applying for a U.S. Post Office realized that their town, which had been established a few years earlier, had the same name as another Indiana burg. There was no choice but to change the name of Santa Fe, Indiana, to something else. After townspeople consulted among themselves, “Santa Claus” won the day. Little did the residents of the tiny town realize that they were setting themselves up for a cottage Christmas industry that would last for over a century.

Though Santa Claus was the town’s name, one nearby resident felt the place wasn’t respectful enough to the man himself. For years, the teensy town had been a beloved place to send letters to Santa, which the postmaster responded to (with some help from locals) along with the town’s unique postmark. However, a local industrialist named Louis Koch thought that wasn’t enough—he believed the town needed a better way to honor everyone’s favorite Christmas visitor.


Koch took matters into his own hands during early World War II, when he bought 260 acres of farmland with plans for an amusement park. The war intervened briefly, but when it ended Koch moved forward as swiftly as a reindeer pulling a sleigh. He and his son opened a Santa-themed park designed in an Alpine style and complete with adorable details like a toy shop, children’s rides, and appearances from Santa himself. It even had a House of Dolls aimed at little girls.

Amusement parks existed long before Santa Land opened in 1946, but a park with a specific theme was something new. One of its greatest assets was Santa himself, who was played by a man named Jim Yellig for close to four decades. Yellig earned a spot in the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame for his trusty portrayal of the portly celebrity and is thought to have had over a million kids sit on his knee during his tenure.

Future president Ronald Reagan visiting Santa Claus Land in 1955, with Santa (Jim Yellig) on the left and Louis Koch on the right. Image credit: Wikimedia // Public Domain

Koch’s bid to put the Santa in Santa Claus worked. Despite being free initially (it started charging 50 cents admission to adults in 1955), the park generated enough revenue to make Koch’s son, Bill, think: Why not build out Santa Claus—the town itself—even further?

Bill Koch’s dream for Santa Claus was huge, and it didn’t stop with a mere kiddie park. Rather, like Disney after him, he saw his investment in the area’s tourism as a real estate bid, too. He opened a campground across from the park in 1958. Then, in the early 1960s, he told his son he wanted to build out the stagnant, small town. “He wanted a better place to raise his kids,” his son, Philip, recalled in a history of his father’s business. Bill's wife, Pat, told her husband he was "absolutely crazy. Why would anyone want to live in Santa Claus?”

Undeterred, Bill began to buy up farmland and work with local authorities to create the groundwork for a subdivision—featuring street names like Chestnuts-by-the-Fire Drive. In 1966, Christmas Lake Village opened—and today the upscale gated community has about 2000 residents. (The family also built another, non-gated community called Holiday Village.)

Santa Claus Land Brochure 2

Things changed at Santa Claus Land over the years. In the 1970s, the park began adding more daring rides in an effort to compete with a growing rollercoaster trend. In the 1980s, it changed its name to Holiday World and incorporated other holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July. These days, it also contains a water park called Splashin' Safari and several noteworthy coasters, like The Raven and The Legend

It may no longer be called Santa Claus Land, but Holiday World is still a local destination and has plenty of Christmas tributes (Santa still makes daily appearances). And perhaps the best part of the park is the fact that it emerged from one small town’s Santa obsession.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]