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A Fresh Dozen Niche Blogs

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When I notice there's quite a few of something interesting on the internet, I make a list of them and post it here. Other people take a deeper interest in something fairly obscure that happens over and over, and they make a blog about it. Some subjects wear themselves out pretty quickly -in fact, three blogs I jotted down for this list went completely defunct in the short time since. Others keep chugging along, waiting for anyone who is interested in that subject. Here are some more narrowly-focused blogs you might enjoy taking a look at.

1. Have you ever considered socks as an art medium? The anonymous author of a Tumblr blog called Famous album covers recreated with my socks has, and apparently has quite a selection of socks to use! There are two pages of album covers now, and we hope there is more to come.

2. You might argue that dogs can feel shame, or maybe they just seem to be particularly aware when you're angry with them. In any case, putting a sign on them to tell the world of their shame probably won't change the dog's behavior, but it does make for some funny pictures! The Tumblr blog Dogshaming collects those photos to share with the world. Oh yes, and it features the occasional cat, too. Submissions are welcome, and critical comments will be posted for public shaming.

3. Replacement Hipsters is a picture blog featuring snapshots of elderly people with their fashion sense born of a genuine "I could care less what you think" attitude that younger people pay to have dictated to them. And there's nothing more fashionable than a genuine attitude.

4. Sorry I Haven't Posted is composed completely of blog posts from everywhere that start off with an apology for sparse posting. Sometimes they are unnecessary to the point of laughter.

Sorry I haven’t posted in a while but I was busy! So, I will post this afternoon, so look forward to that.

Other times, they catch your attention.

Hey gang. Sorry I haven’t posted in a while. I recently had a very, very, very, minor, very, very, very, mild heart attack. I know…it doesn’t matter how many very-verys you put in front of it, it’s still a heart attack.

5. Even when they don't last long, Tumblr blogs are good for getting a quick gallery online. Muppets With People Eyes lasted until the most popular Muppets were published, and they are still creepy.

6. Mo Farah won gold for Great Britain in the Olympic 5,000 and 10,000 meter races, which solidified his status as a national hero. A classic image showing the moment he realized he'd won the second gold medal lent itself to an photo mashup meme, many of which are enshrined in the Tumblr blog Mo Farah Running Away from Things. No, he's not scared, but taken out of context and with the proper menacing background, it sure can look that way!

7. Dull News in Local Newspapers is British based, but has news stories as dull as your hometown paper. Some things are the same the world over. The picture is from a story about a misplaced apostrophe on a temporary banner, and the hubbub it caused.

8. Star Trek Points at Things is taking the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation episode by episode and posting each incident of pointing, in order. Gestures are counted to see which character does the most pointing, and scores are being kept. The blog is now on the seventh episode of season one, so there will be a lot of new pointing in the future.

9. Cats are really good at not knowing their place, at least as far as what humans believe their place is. Photographic evidence of this is at Cats. Where they do not belong. Each entry has almost-sensible commentary of why a cat does not belong in that particular spot.

10. Removies are what you get when you remove one letter from a movie title and make it into something completely different. The resulting posters are found at the Tumblr blog Removies, but the artist so far remains anonymous. There's no shortage of material, as everyone I've presented this idea to can come up with a half-dozen titles off the tops of their heads.

11. Dr. Adorable's Ask-along Blog is a parody of Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog with one difference: this one stars the characters from My Little Pony! Oh, there's another difference in that Dr. Adorable is a continuing project. It's been in business almost a year, with no lack of material in the foreseeable future.

12. The Worst Things for Sale is a product review blog, but only for products that can be mocked mercilessly. The simple chairs shown were described thusly:

These chairs are made out of an exotic material called “Polywood.” I’m not sure what polywood is, but they’re $219,119.00 for a pair, so it must be pretty comfortable to sit on.

The only downside I see is that they’re “some assembly required.” For that price they’d better come with someone to put them together and feed me grapes while I sit in them.

Product links are included, of course. The blog is run by Drew Fairweather, who you might know as the cartoonist behind Toothpaste for Dinner. Some entries are NSFW.

If that's not enough to keep you busy for a while, check out our previous posts on Niche Blogs.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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science
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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