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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
technology
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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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