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12 Oddly Specific Museums Preserving Our History

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by Laurel Mills & Allison Keene

1. The SPAM® Museum

If the on-site "wall of SPAM" is any indication, a tour through the SPAM Museum in Austin, Minnesota, is guaranteed fun for the whole canned-pork-loving family. SPAM's parent company, Hormel Foods, opened the establishment in 2001 to the tune of almost 5,000 cans of SPAM. One of the main attractions is a scale model of a SPAM plant, where visitors can don white coats and hairnets while pretending to produce America's favorite tinned meat.

2. National Museum of Funeral History

quaye.jpgIt's pretty hard to argue with the motto "Any Day Above Ground is a Good One." So goes the backhanded optimism of the National Museum of Funeral History, a Houston facility that opened in 1992. Visitors are treated to exhibits that include a Civil War embalming display and a replica of a turn-of-the-century casket factory. In addition, the museum boasts an exhibit of "fantasy coffins" designed by Ghanaian artist Kane Quaye. These moribund masterpieces include a casket shaped like a chicken, a Mercedes-Benz, a shallot, and an outboard motor. According to Quaye, his creations are based on the dreams and last wishes of his clients, which—let's be honest—really makes you wonder about the guy buried in the shallot.

3. The Hobo Museum

If you're bumming around but looking for a good time, be sure to take a load off in Britt, Iowa, at The Hobo Museum, which details the history and culture of tramps. Bear in mind, though, that the museum kind of, well, slacks on hours and is only open to the public during the annual Hobo Convention. Luckily, tours can be arranged by appointment any time of year. Of course, if you're interested in the Hobo Convention, lodging is available all over the area, but it's a safe bet that most of your compatriots will be resting their floppy hats at the "hobo jungle," located by the railroad tracks. Both the event and the museum are operated by the Hobo Foundation, which—incidentally—also oversees the nearby Hobo Cemetery, where those who have "caught the westbound" are laid to rest.

4. Cook's Natural Science Museum

What began as a training facility for Cook's Pest Control exterminators blossomed into one of the few museums in the country willing to tell the tale of the pest. At Cook's Natural Science Museum in Decatur, Alabama, visitors can learn everything they ever wanted to know about rats, cockroaches, mice, spiders, and termites "¦ all for free. And while most people would rather step on the live specimens than learn about them, museum exhibits such as the crowd-pleasing Pest of the Month keep reeling in patrons.

5. Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia

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On the West Coast lies the Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia, home of the World's Largest PEZ dispenser and a whole bunch more. Most everyone is familiar with PEZ, a pretty ubiquitous pop culture touchstone, but did you know that PEZ was originally marketed as an adult mint for people trying to quit smoking?

6. The Barbed Wire Museum

The Barbed Wire Museum in McLean, Texas, comes complete with a reading list for those who want to know more about the history of this apparently fascinating fencing. Also known as the "Devil's Rope," it came into being by way of a mutated coffee bean grinder (which made the barbs) and a hand-cranked grindstone device (that twisted the wires together). Just like Mama used to make, right?

7. The Conspiracy Museum

There's more than one theory about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, so why not have more than one museum devoted to it as well? Most JFK buffs are familiar with the Sixth Floor Museum housed in the former Texas School Book Depository, which recounts all those boring "mainstream" details of the late president's life leading up to his death at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald. But just down the street, the Conspiracy Museum offers fodder for those less apt to buy into The Man's propaganda. For the most part, the museum specializes in showings of the Zapruder film and explanations of contrary assassination theories, including other gunmen on the grassy knoll and possible mafia involvement.

8. The Museum of Bad Art

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Founded in 1993, The Museum of Bad Art (MOBA) in Boston is "a community-based, private institution dedicated to the collection, preservation, exhibition and celebration of bad art in all its forms and in all its glory." The art featured on the site is not of the middle-school drivel variety; rather, the pieces seem to be the product of people who think that if they light candles and play Mozart loudly, the talent will come. It doesn't, but the results are fun.

9. The Mütter Museum

mutter.jpgOriginally, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia erected the Mütter Museum as a creative way to inform medical students and practicing physicians about some of the more unusual medical phenomena. (You know, babies with two heads, that sort of thing.) But today, it primarily serves as a popular spot for anyone interested in the grotesque. There, you'll find the world's largest colon, removed from a man who died—not surprisingly—of constipation. Also on display: an OB-GYN instrument collection, thousands of fluid-preserved anatomical and pathological specimens, and a large wall dedicated entirely to swallowed objects.

10. The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices

Take two trips to the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices and call us when you've lost all faith in the medical profession. Thanks to curator Bob McCoy (who has donated the collection to the Science Museum of Minnesota), those in search of history's quack science can find what they're looking for in the St. Paul tourist attraction, whether it's a collection of 19th-century phrenology machines or some 1970s breast enlargers. If you make the trip, be sure to check out the 1930s McGregor Rejuvenator. This clever device required patrons to enclose their bodies, sans head, in a large tube where they were pounded with magnetic and radio waves in attempts to reverse the aging process.

11. Vent Haven Ventriloquist Museum

vent.jpgSo, what do you get when you combine the loneliness of a pet cemetery with the creepy flair of vaudeville? The Vent Haven Ventriloquist Museum, of course—where dummies go to die. The Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, museum was the brainchild of the late William Shakespeare Berger, who founded the site as a home for retired wooden puppets. In fact, he collected figures from some of the country's most famous ventriloquist acts. And with more than 700 dummies stacked from floor to ceiling, you're bound to feel like you're stuck inside a 1970s horror flick—albeit a really good one. But sadly, when Berger gave the tour, you could totally tell his mouth was moving. [Image courtesy of Vic.]

12. The Trash Museum

Mom wasn't kidding when she said one man's trash is another man's treasure. At the Trash Museum in Hartford, the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority (CRRA) turns garbage into 6,500 square feet of pure recycling entertainment! Tour the Temple of Trash or visit the old-fashioned town dump. And for your recycler-in-training, head down the street to the Children's Garbage Museum, where you can take an educational stroll through the giant compost pile, get a glimpse of the 1-ton Trash-o-saurus, or enjoy the company of resident compost worms.

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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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