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A Big Round of Niche Blogs

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If you are looking for new places to explore online, there are more and more niche blogs that might tickle your funny bone for a few minutes or may be something you are passionately into, especially with the explosion in the number of Tumblr blogs -over 20 million of them! There's something about the Tumbler combination blogging and social network platform that inspires new bloggers to try it out, and also inspires established bloggers to launch two, three, or dozens of new blogs about very narrow subjects (even mental_floss has one). Not all the niche blogs here are Tumblr blogs, but the vast majority are. I have conveniently ignored the many blogs with an expletive in the title.

Food

Ramen noodles aren't just for preschoolers and starving college students anymore! But before you select yours, consult the Ramen Rater. The author of the Ramen Rater has sampled and critiqued 451 unique varieties of instant ramen noodles from around the world -so far! The blog has those ratings, as well as all kinds of recipes and other information about noodles. Pretty Foods & Pretty Drinks is a photoblog of consumables that are too artful to actually eat. Pictured are mini flag cakes; links to the recipes or original pictures are included. Doom Cakes spans the gap between food blogs and movie blogs. This site documents the "cinematic tradition in which any beautifully decorated cake serves as a harbinger of imminent catastrophe (often including the destruction of said cake)."

Animals

You'll never go wrong posting pictures of cute animals. There are so many such pictures that very specific blogs grew up around the available material. Animals with Stuffed Animals shows us our pets snuggled up with the toys they love. Aww!

Cats. Where they do not belong. is a photo blog of cats in strange places. Well, maybe not so strange to anyone who has a cat. Pets Who Want to Kill Themselves features pictures of animals dressed up in clothing or costumes. They would be embarrassed if they cared. Along the same lines, Animals Dressed as Other Animals limits itself to pets wearing costumes depicting animals.

Chemistry

Beautiful Proteins is a serious science blog by Mike Tyka, a scientist who is also an artist. He renders the molecular structure of proteins in a way that both illustrates their makeup and shows their beautiful patterns. Shown here is a complex arrangement of eight cystatin C molecules. Caffenol is a blog dedicated to the homemade film developing chemical caffenol, which consists of instant coffee and washing soda, and its uses. A fascinating, if obscure, hobby.

History

You know these two fine-looking young men, even if you've never seen a photograph of either one before. They were both posted at My Daguerreotype Boyfriend, a photo blog dedicated to the attractive men of yesteryear that are still with us thanks to the invention of the camera. On the left is Almanzo Wilder, husband of author Laura Ingalls Wilder. On the right is Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov. Hotties from History posts photos along the same lines, but doesn't limit itself to men.

Historical Meet-Ups documents those moments when celebrities who (one would think) have no reason to ever meet actually did. You might be surprised, but remember that celebrities can be fans, too -with better access to their object of admiration than we have. Then there are those stories of coincidence, such as Albert Einstein living in the same New Jersey neighborhood as the child who grew up to be the ultra-hippie Wavy Gravy. Black and WTF features strange photographs from way back in time. Some have explanations, some don't; it just proves that ever since the invention of photography, people have pointed cameras at weird sights that no one would believe otherwise.

Celebrities

Actors With Action Figures collects pictures of the unique set of actors who portrayed a character and then had the honor of having the toy action figure designed to look like them. Shown is actress Karen Gillan with the Amy Pond action figure from Doctor Who designed after her portrayal. Another truly specific blog subject is Tom Hanks in a Wax Museum. There's enough material to keep this one going because so many museums have a Tom Hanks figure, and so many tourists have their photograph made with them.

Celebrity Dinosaurs Are Awesome! imagines your favorite dinosaurs with famous faces. Yes, that's all it is. Pictured is the Stephen Colberaptor. The blog Everything is Better with Ducks has pictures of a cartoon duck dressed as various celebrities, fictional characters, and themes.

Words

Starbucks Spelling is dedicated to the custom of baristas writing a customer's name on a cup, for which they sometimes get the spelling wrong. The offense is forgivable as it's hard to hear in a crowded shop, but the result is often worth a laugh. Shown here are four different orders Omar recorded. Onion-like Headlines in Real Life tracks wonderfully absurd or punny headlines, which only encourages more of that sort of thing. More power to them.

Star Trek

Spock on Earth is a blog featuring Craig Galentine's Star Trek Kokeshi dolls placed in various real-world settings and situations. He invites suggestions for new photographs. Here you see Spock browsing the tomatoes at the Union Square Green Market in New York City. At another blog, Spock is Not Impressed, we see Photoshopped images of Spock being very unimpressed by things we would find quite impressive. So be it. Spock rarely, if ever, appears in Fashion It So, a blog about the clothing and costumes seen on the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Charlie and Anna are having a good time capturing screenshots and coming up with commentary on the fashions of the 23rd century.

See also: A Sampling of Niche Blogs
Niche Blogs: Found Photos Edition
Niche Blogs: Focused on Food
Niche Blogs: The English Language
Niche Blogs for Everyone!
Strangely Specific: A Roundup of Niche Blogs

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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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iStock
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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