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__________-of-the-Month Clubs: 16 Offbeat Subscription Services

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If you forgot about someone this holiday season and you're scrambling for a belated present, there are always gift-of-the-month clubs. While wine and cheese clubs tend to be the norm, there's guaranteed to be a subscription service out there for anyone on your holiday list.

Homemade Goodies

From eye shadow to jams to earrings, Etsy is a great place to get one-of-a-kind subscription services for those you love. Of course, since anyone can list any thing they want on the site, that also means there are a lot of bizarre gift clubs as well.


Does someone you know have a hard time finding enough vintage button rings to suit her interest? Then perhaps she needs a subscription to the Vintage Button Ring of the Month Club.



Or maybe you know someone who is strangely obsessed with jewelry featuring pendants in the shape of mustaches. If so, the Mustache of the Month Club is just what the mustachioed doctor ordered.



Sometimes it’s hard to find enough plush squids, which is why the Squid a Month Club is simply a must-have for anyone lacking enough stuffed cephalopods in their lives.



Know someone who needs a little help spicing up their life in the bedroom? Look no further than a 12 Months Subscription to Dirty Finger Puppets.



Perhaps the most unique subscription service on Etsy, though, is the Moss of the Month Club, which provides subscribers with a monthly delivery of “a new sandwich bag full of assorted moss and lichens.” Occasionally the delivery will include a terrarium or rock to decorate with the moss, but most often, the delivery is simply a bag of moss.

Food & Drink

There are so many gift clubs based around foods that it would be preposterous to list all of the slightly offbeat ones. That being said, here are a few truly notable subscription services offering edible treats.



Image courtesy of Flickr user kveton.

Sure it might not be a great help to those with high cholesterol levels, but if you know someone obsessed with America’s favorite pork product, then The Bacon of the Month Club could be the perfect gift choice.



Most people may believe a lobster is just a lobster, but that’s just because they don’t have the money to enjoy the treat on a regular basis. For those that appreciate the subtle variety of lobster tails, for only $1115 you can ensure someone receives four fresh lobster tails at their doorstep every month. Hopefully they aren’t the jet setting type or else they might return from their vacation to find four very stinky rotten carcasses on their doorstep.



For those that prefer cowboy snacks, the Jerky of the Month Club offers two flavors of jerky every month that total at least a half a pound of dried meat goodness.



Know someone who can’t decide between chunky or smooth? The Peanut Butter of the Month Club is a great way to let them make up their own mind on their own time. Of course, this would also be a good way to passive-aggressively threaten someone who happens to have a severe peanut allergy.



Pickles may be delicious, but it takes some real dedication to enjoy a whole jar of pickles every month. For those pickle fanatics though, there’s always the Pickle of the Month Club, which includes a variety of dill, sweet, bread and butter, spicy, and more.



Of course, sometimes the best gifts are those that accompany gifts from someone else. After all, what’s a cheese of the month subscription without a Cracker of the Month Club membership to go along with it? You can’t just eat cheese without crackers can you?

Fashion

We all know someone who could use a little wardrobe enhancement, but usually it’s better to buy a few sweaters yourself or give them a gift card to a clothing store so they can pick out their own ensembles. But if you want to allow a faceless company to select clothing for someone you care about, there’s always fashion subscription services.

Perhaps the strangest fashion subscription service of all is the Black Socks Sockscription. If you couldn’t tell by the name, this subscription service allows the recipient to receive black socks on a regular basis because apparently going to the store and buying black socks is far too stressful for some people.



If you know someone simply obsessed with T-shirts, two of the internet’s biggest shirt stores offer T-shirt subscription services. The Threadless 12 Club offers special limited edition tees designed exclusively for club members. The Busted Tees Shirt of the Month Club allows the recipient to select one shirt from the company catalog each month, which makes them one of the most flexible subscription services around.

Etc.

There are also those other gift clubs that don’t quite belong to any other category. While some, like the golf ball or candle are at least practical, others are a little stranger.



You know those people who would prefer receiving a treat for their dog than something for themselves? Well, The Dog Treat of the Month Club is a perfect gift for those who only care about Fido; it includes a pound worth of treats with every delivery.



Depending on your gift recipient’s occupation, the Mineral of the Month Club might actually be quite practical. After all, a gemologist, a holistic practitioner, a jewelry maker, or a geologist might just be thrilled to receive a new mineral every month. For the average public, though, you may as well just send a box of pretty rocks.
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There are plenty more weird subscription services out there (including a few too X-rated to include here), so if you know of any other weird ones, feel free to add them in the comments. That being said, have any of you ever received a gift of the month club subscription? Did you like it or did it end up becoming too much of a good thing?

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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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