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A Current Sampling of Niche Blogs

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You come here to mental_floss for your daily dose of knowledge on a wide variety of topics. Our quizzes and entertainment posts also cover a great range of subjects. But sometimes, you like to find something so different and specific that you didn't even realize there was enough material for a website, much less a blog. And that's why we bring you updates about the huge variety of strange and wonderful niche blogs about extremely narrow subject matter, because if some blogger somewhere can dream it up, its there for you to enjoy on the internet.

Students at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design created a Tumblr blog of cats that explains how the world's most quirky buildings became so quirky. It's called Furrrocious-forms. Here you see a cat putting the finishing touches on Frank Gehry’s Dancing House in Prague. The pictures get even stranger around finals week.

I'm not sure what qualifies a picture to go on the blog Hipster Babies, but the ones that do sure are cute. Evidence presented here is a photo from Mickey's Girl. Hipster Babies also posts cute pictures of hipster pets on occasion.

Businesses, especially service industries like restaurants, all want Facebook pages, not only for free advertising, but to provide their "fans" a way to leave feedback. However, this can lead to confusion. Facebook encourages people to make it their homepage, and therefore some elderly people use Facebook like it's a search engine. Actually, that's quite common, which leads to search terms being left as comments. And then there are people who love to leave feedback for a company because they're mad and want someone to know about it. Together, these comments inspired the Tumblr blog Old People Writing on a Restaurant's Facebook Page. It consists entirely of screenshots of Facebook comments, from older people, on restaurant pages. It's a hoot! The second picture here is an example of how lots of people respond to a company asking for Facebook likes.

I recently moved my personal website to a new host, and one difference is that, although both hosts prevented spam comments from publishing, now I actually see it every day. Some of it, I must admit, is downright interesting in a nonsensical way. That's what inspired the blog called Greetings I am so excited I found your welbog. The blogger says "even in a great big pile of trash you can find some gems worth saving," which is exactly what you get here. Just to let you know, my roof rake is still in fine shape.

Things Could Be Worse is a side project on Tumblr by comic book illustrator Benjamin Dewey. Each "tragedy" is drawn postcard style and could leave you sad or giggling (I prefer giggling). When a reader whined, he said:

I promise to cease once I have illustrated 500 lachrymose examples of misfortune and 26 episodes of unmitigated levity. I hope you can find some enjoyment and solace in the sadness reprieves, another of which is shortly forthcoming.

Michael is a Scottish artist and blogger who plays Draw Something, the popular game where people guess words from other's drawings. Only Michael always draws Hitler. Hitler usually has nothing to do with the target word, so the words "ignore Hitler" are also included. He's done this so much that he has posted his drawings on a blog, appropriately entitled Ignore Hitler. This is the kind of project that could go on however long the artist wishes to continue. Somewhat related: Cats That Look Like Hitler, an oldie but a goodie, that now has over seven thousand pictures!

People will take anything and everything and make an image of something to do with Star Wars out of it. Star Wars Remix is dedicated to Star Wars arts and crafts, no matter how strange. Yoda rendered in salt grains? Storm troopers carved from melons? Boba Duck? Yes, they are all there. Shown is a Chewbacca Burger, from Charlton Yu of Everything Burger.

Nerd Cats is an anonymous, seldom-updated blog featuring found and submitted nerdy cat pictures, whether natural, staged, or Photoshopped, including webcomics and artworks. With such a perfect subject, it's a shame it isn't updated more often.

The Chirurgeon's Apprentice is a blog "dedicated to the horrors of pre-anaesthetic surgery." It is curated by medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris, who has a strong stomach. The illustration here is from a post explaining how the "plague mask" came about. It's not just a scary image: the shape has purpose, or at least did in the Middle Ages. Speaking of the Middle Ages, the picture blog Ugly Renaissance Babies got a lot of notice around Christmas. Why are there so many ugly babies in the art of that time? My theory is that, while for most subjects only the best paintings survived to be revered today, that's not true for religious paintings. Tossing out an image of the Madonna with Child seemed like a sacrilege, so these paintings were kept around, no matter how poorly they were executed. And there are a lot of them! I'd post a picture here, but, you know, they're ugly.

Old Love is about celebrity couples that are no more. They made sense at one time, but now they seem bizarre. I recall Burt Reynolds' long-term thing with Dinah Shore, and Tom Cruise's marriage to Mimi Rogers,  and Barbra Streisand being married to Elliot Gould, but it all seems so strange now. But then again, I'm still surprised about who I dated thirty years ago! The site has an index so you can browse for celebrities you know. Shown here is Eric Clapton with Carla Bruni (who is now married to former French president Nicolas Sarkozy) in 1989.

Novelist and former sex crimes prosecutor Allison Leotta runs a blog in which she dissects episodes of the TV show Law & Order: SVU as to how accurate they are. Fascinating reading for fans of the show, or those interested in law enforcement or television production.

But if you just want to see pictures, how about a blog that chronicles the food eaten on the TV show Law & Order? Now that's specific: and it gave us the above picture. The blog Law & Order & Food by Malkahdamia Coddle has the tagline "You have the right to remain delicious." It's a narrow topic, but it's enough to keep the blog constantly updated -after all, the show was on for twenty years, and when that's all posted, she can start on the spinoffs. See you in Food Court!

Tumblr has an endless supply of picture blogs to which people submit their personal take on a oddly specific subject. One is Chandler Bing Dances on Things. Yes, see the Friends character played by Matthew Perry dancing in gif form on top of tables, cats, buildings, food, whatever the imagination can produce.

The blog called Hey girl. I like the library too. is a particular treat for those of us who appreciate a fine-looking man giving out sweet nothings. 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.

But there is a point when a blog subject gets so narrow that you truly run out of reasons to return to it. Case in point: The Same Picture of Dave Coulier Every Day, which gives you exactly what it says on the tin. Nineteen pages of it so far. I'm sure it's an experiment of some sort, and I bet anyone who goes there is part of it. But you've already seen it here!

If that's not enough to keep you busy for a while, check out our previous posts on Niche Blogs.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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