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Niche Blogs for Everyone!

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If you find yourself yearning for a fresh dose of websites featuring something different and bizarre that you'd never think to look for yourself, you've come to the right place. That is, of course, after you've read everything new at mental_floss! Here's another round of blogs that focus on one very specific subject and still manage to update on a regular basis.

ANIMALS

Owls are nocturnal predators, so if you catch a chance to photograph one in the daylight, they are probably sleepy. You can imagine they aren't too happy about being disturbed for a picture. Hungover Owls pegs that look and features owl pictures that remind you of that great party you attended but took days to recover from.

NOSTALGIA

Relive old memories or learn about what life was life before you were born with nostalgic blogs like Vanished Americana. You can participate yourself by contributing pictures to When I Had Braces and show off your family at My Parents Were Awesome. Hippy Kitchens (pictured) brings back memories of preparing food with your counterculture friends in the 1960s and '70s.

COMICS

There are a multitude of blogs dedicated to comics and comic books, so some specialize in just one comic, or just one facet of the comic universe. Comic Book Cartography concerns itself with the maps, charts, and graphs found in the comic book world. Ever-lovin' Blue-eyed Whirled of Kelly is a blog devoted to the genius of Walt Kelly, creator of Pogo. Although Pogo is history, the possum and his friends worked on so many levels that there is no dearth of material to discuss.

Some also find entertainment in putting words into pictures, especially when no picture is intended. CAPTCHArt tried to make sense, in a way, out of the tests we often go through to prove we aren't 'bots, by illustrating their nonsense (some images NSFW). And don't forget Twaggies, the project in which artists illustrate interesting Tweets from all over.

POP CULTURE

Television and movies are shared experiences we can all relate to. Take a small part of that experience, expand on it, invite other fans to contribute, and you've got a niche blog. For example, Nic Cage As Everyone is a short leap from his actual career, as Nicholas Cage has appeared as different characters in a bazillion movies. Entries are submitted by anyone with Photoshop abilities. Third and Delaware features fashion highlights from the TV series Roseanne. The show won't die, but it is forever stuck in the 1980s and '90s. The Simpsons fans know that Bart must often write something 100 times as punishment. If you have a favorite, you'll find it on An Archive of Bart Simpson's Blackboard Writings. Sleevefaced makes comedy from art, that is, the art of the album cover combined with poses from real life. Just put an album over your face and you can become that art!

Science fiction has a number of niche blogs as well. Number One contains nothing but pictures of Commander Riker, a character from the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation. Recently, that includes pictures created by artists as well as screenshots. Pictured is a contribution by Simon Fey of the webcomic Muddled. There's also Hot Chicks with Storm Troopers, if you are into that sort of thing.

FOOD

It stands to reason that there are plenty more blogs on specific foods than those we covered in a previous post devoted to the subject. I recommend We Heart Mac and Cheese, (pictured) for cultural references, reviews, and recipes pertaining to one particular dish. Bad Menu is a picture blog of signs, ads, and recipes that may make you lose your appetite. The Taxi Gourmet is a project in which Layne Mosler gets into a taxi once a week and asks the driver to take her to his favorite eatery. She then writes up the experience so you'll know what to expect. Seems like a good idea to me. I always ask the hotel cleaning staff where to get decent food without spending tourist dollars.

STRUCTURES

Architecture is a big subject, but Stair Porn gets right to what you really want to see -stairs! New England Lighthouse Treasures is not limited to New England, but you have to admit that news about lighthouses is a pretty specific subject. Playgroundology (pictured) is quite a specific subject, but it's one we all know a little something about. Playgrounds have come a long way since I was a kid.

EVERYDAY GRAFFITI

Graffiti stays in one place by definition, but several bloggers believe it should be shared globally. There are blogs dedicated to street art, and other blogs dedicated to text scribbled on the spur of the moment, like Bathroom Bar Art, (pictured) featuring graffiti from pubs, taverns, and dives. Notes from the Stall documents bathroom graffiti from all over and solicits your submissions as well. Crescat Graffiti, Vita Excolatur is a project documenting graffiti at the Regenstein Library, which is the main library at the University of Chicago. This particular forum challenges graffiti writers to leave their cleverest musings. The blog attached to the project includes graffiti from other colleges and universities. Please be aware that the graffiti at these sites is often NSFW.

PEOPLE

Matthew Inman created the picture blog Marvelous Man Boobs only to even up the sex discrimination he was accused of after starting the blog Women with Mustaches. Both are exactly what the title says. Clients From Hell is where designers share their stories of difficult clients. Not many pictures here, as discretion remains the better part of staying employed. Not all blogs about people are so anonymous. Old Grandma Hardcore is a blog about the author's grandmother (pictured), who spends her time playing video games and defeating anyone who challenges her.

DISHES

And finally, Weekly Mug Shot brings you a picture of a different mug every week. A coffee mug, that is.

See also: A Sampling of Niche Blogs, Niche Blogs: Found Photos Edition, Niche Blogs: Focused on Food, and Niche Blogs: The English Language.

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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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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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