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Niche Blogs for the Dog Days of August

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Are you tired of the Olympics already? Are you tired of U.S. presidential election news? Are you bogged down with back-to-school preparations? Then maybe you need some lighthearted distraction! Of course, you'll always find interesting and informative posts at mental_floss, but in addition, here are some wacky and oddly specific blogs that might bring you a smile or two during the hot month of August.

Let's Polka is a blog about "all things accordion." Ha! You thought I was going to say it's about polka music, right? Yeah, those things often go hand-in-hand, but if you enjoy accordion music, play one, or are thinking about taking up the accordion, you'll want to read this. Let's Polka, by Anna and Chris Saccheri, isn't updated very often, but has a lot in the archives. Pictured is accordion player Christina Hendricks.

We told you earlier about the blog Goths in Hot Weather; now you need to check out Goths Up Trees. Goths Up Trees is run by the blogger known as Verity or changelyng. Goths submit pictures of themselves or friends in trees, and they are posted with the story behind them (if provided) and commentary from changelyng.

Babies at Concerts has the tagline "Pretty much the cutest thing next to puppies rolling in ice cream." If you enjoy either music or babies or both (and who doesn't?) you'll find something to make you smile in this picture blog. The photo shown was taken at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2009 and submitted by Kimber.

Nostalgia blog Growing Up Heroes has photographs of children in their superhero play clothes or costumes, often submitted by those children themselves years later. Jeff Gurwood contributed this photo of Superman and the Flash. I love Superman's white gloves and the Flash's cowboy boots!

Do you feel the need to keep up with what's going on in the world of puppetry? Then check out Puppet Vision. Curated by a Toronto puppeteer named Andrew, this blog has news stories, videos, profiles of puppeteers from all over, and more about the art of puppetry than you ever thought you needed to know! It even has links to more puppetry blogs. The picture here is from a post on the first puppet show produced by Al Jazeera Childrens Channel in Qatar.

Posting pictures of cats is what 95% of bloggers do. To be a real niche blog, you have to have a narrower theme. Ca$hCats fills the bill, so to speak, as all the pictures contain both cats and cash. The cats, however, don't seem to care. It's all about the Benjamins, so this blog will take your photo submission.

The same idea is behind OMG Cats in Space!!! except that the cats in this picture blog appear to be quite excited to be in space. They are all animated gifs of cats superimposed on celestial backgrounds, and the site has an infinite scroll so you can conceivably see them all at once. Cosmic.

News Cat Gifs! is obviously run by a journalist who prefers to remain anonymous. He/she does have an extensive collection of animated cats to explain the business. The gif shown here is titled "When someone complains about breaking Olympic news on Twitter."

If you prefer your news silly, but without cats, here's something for you. Onion-like Headlines in Real Life is exactly what it says on the tin, but most importantly, those headlines are all links to the story to which they refer. Otherwise, you'd think they were made up of whole cloth just for the blog. This headline goes to a story that we had in the Morning Links a week or so back. It was a slow news day, I guess.

Okay, most of this list is for those who are looking for something besides Olympic coverage, but there are a few blogs that are there only for the London 2012 Olympics, and that's a pretty narrow niche. They probably won't be updated much after the Games are over. One is ROFLympics 2012, which is part of the Cheezburger network. Strangely, there is rather little "rolling on the floor laughing" content, but instead a lot of news, scores, and results updated quite often. Oh yes, there's the occasional funny photo, as you can see. Warning: this blog contains spoilers.

Fourth-Place Medal is a subsidiary of Yahoo News that looks at the lighter side of the Olympics, plus trivia that is just a little too obscure for a full news story. For example, where else would you hear about a newspaper that published results featuring North and South Korea labeled as "Naughty Korea" and "Nice Korea"? Still, I'm glad to find a breaking story about an Olympic athlete we met last week. Warning: this blog contains spoilers.

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
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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May 23, 2017
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