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Christmas Blogs and Other Niche Blogs

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It's not hard to find Christmas blogs. It is, however, hard to find Christmas blogs that are still active, really dedicated to Christmas, and aren't trying to sell you something. I've found an interesting few for your perusal, although I feel this is only scratching the surface.

Mistletunes is dedicated to Christmas music, particularly the rock-and-roll type, although you will find other genres. The archives go back to 2006, and the types of music are indexed for your convenience. You'll find plenty of music videos at this site!

Holly’s Tacky Christmas Lights Blog fires up every year to keep track of Christmas light displays in Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia. That's a pretty specific subject for a blog, but if you live in that area, it's a valuable resource. No pictures, though, you'll have to go see the lights yourself!

TackyChristmasYards is about the display and critique of cringeworthy Christmas decorations. Unfortunately, it is no longer updated, but fortunately, there's still plenty of material to see.

Mrs. Bingle's Vintage Christmas has pictures of Christmas decorations that are either antique, nostalgic, or recreations of bygone Christmases. Warning: autoplay music.

Vintage Holiday Images and Cards is a picture blog with lovely old imagery. The majority of the site deals with Christmas, but there are a few Halloween posts as well.

Simplify Christmas has stories, pictures, crafts, history, humor, and general Christmas stuff, updated from about September through Christmas every year for several years now.

X-Entertainment is an "ancient geeky website" (since 2002) from Matt and friends covering pop culture and '80s nostalgia. It's not all about Christmas, but the website has been renamed The X-E Blog Christmas 2011, and the tagline is "X-Entertainment loves Christmas and will not stop talking about it, ever." There's also a list of Christmas posts from the distant past to go with new Christmas content. Shown is Matt's USB mini-tree. NSFW text.

365 Days of Christmas really does have Christmas content all year round! You can find stories, crafts, recipes, gifts, and activities. Warning: autoplay music.

Christmas Spirit Fail looks at the dark side of Christmas: the tackiness, commercialism, bad music, and stuff that's just plain wrong. Sadly, it isn't updated nearly as often as it could be.

Tree Talk is a blog of the National Christmas Tree Association. Although it does contain shop talk, I found reading about the Christmas tree business and sustainable tree farming to be fascinating -maybe you will, too. They also have posts that answer consumer questions about buying and caring for real holiday trees. And every once in a while, there's a funny tree like the tree on the right decorated with beer cans.

You've probably heard of Sketchy Santas, which is part of the Cheezburger network. See classic and submitted Santas and kids who are not always happy to have their picture taken with a strange man dressed in red. But the blog also features Christmas videos and other holiday funnies.

Santa Claus blogs, too! Santa Claus Official Blog has been updated regularly since 2006! Children are encouraged to leave their lists for Santa there instead of burdening the postal service.

Ugly Renaissance Babies is not a Christmas blog, but is somewhat related. That's where you'll find a large collection of Madonnas of dubious beauty. Why are there so many ugly Renaissance babies? My theory is that for most subjects, we only keep the best art around. But people through the ages do not want to reject any rendering of Mary and the baby Jesus because that would seem like sacrilege, no matter how poor the actual artwork is.

How about some niche blogs that aren't about Christmas at all? Puppeteers Unite is all about puppetry. Recent posts are about puppet performances, puppets at Occupy Wall Street, the Muppet Movie, puppets for sale, museum exhibits, and puppeteers from all over. The picture here shows winners of a recent puppet contest.

Old Loves has pictures of celebrity couples that are no more. They made sense at one time, but now they seem bizarre. I recall Burt Reynolds long-term relationships with Dinah Shore and Sally Field, and Tom Cruise's marriage to Mimi Rogers, and apparently Winona Ryder and John Stamos dated everyone but each other, but it all seems strange today. Pictured are Cher and Gregg Allman, who were once married to each other -briefly.

Hey girl. I like the library too. Obviously owned by a librarian, this blog features pictures of movie star Ryan Gosling saying wonderful things that a librarian really wants to hear from a sexy man.

Nerd Cats has just what it says on the tin. This Tumblr blog reposts nerdy cats from around the 'net and accepts submissions as well. It's catnip for internet surfers!

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
A Big Round 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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