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4 Crazy Lawsuits Against Museums

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Getty Images

These lawsuits are so bizarre, they should be put in a muse—oh, wait.

1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Admission to the Met is just like the more than two million works in its permanent collection—priceless.

Well, kind of. An 1893 New York state law gave the museum rent-free city land as long as the public enjoys free admission at least five days and two evenings per week. (Alas, such a law has never applied to NYC apartments.) The law was amended in 1970, allowing the Met to post a suggested donation "so long as the amount was left up to individuals and the signage reflected that."

Now, 43 years later, three museum-goers are suing the Met for tricking the public into thinking that the $25 suggested donation fee is a requirement. The suit alleges that posting the fee with the word “recommended” instead of “suggested” misleads visitors, and that museum staff have been trained to ask for the full donation, instead of explaining that entry is pay-what-you-wish.

What do you think? Is the use of "recommended" really so different from "suggested"? Or it like comparing Monet and Manet? (Or Manet and mayonnaise?)

2. The National September 11 Museum and Memorial

Two days after the 9/11 attacks, workers discovered a 17-foot cross-shaped beam, likely from the North Tower, in the rubble of Ground Zero. Like any cross-shaped item, the beam was viewed by some Christians as a symbol of faith, hope, and healing after the terrible tragedy. It stood as a makeshift monument until July 2011 when it was installed at the 9/11 memorial site.

American Atheists, Inc. sued the museum in August 2012, claiming that displaying the beam is a violation of state civil rights law and the Constitution’s establishment clause. The 9/11 museum defended the beam as a historical artifact, not a religious symbol or endorsement. It also clarified that it’s an independent nonprofit, not a government agency. On Friday, a judge dismissed the suit.

3. The Dallas Museum of Art

Museum collections are made possible by art enthusiasts like you—except much, much richer. In 2011, Arnold Schroeder, Jr. sued the Dallas Museum of Art over a $400 million art donation by his deceased mother, Wendy Reves. He claimed that the museum's former art director sneaked 1400 paintings, sculptures, and drawings out of the South of France, where his mother and stepfather lived together. Schroeder claims that under French law, he was entitled to half his mother's estate, and we're guessing he wanted the Van Gogh paintings for his living room.

The only problem? Reves died in 2007 ... and donated the collection to the Dallas Museum of Art in 1985. Another issue: The art belonged to Schroeder's stepfather, not his mother. Doh!

The good news is that Schroeder can now see the collection for free from 11 to 5, Tuesday to Sunday. So can you.

4. Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia

No one's interested in PEZ because it's delicious. PEZ enthusiasts are crazy about the dispensers. Until 1995, Gary Doss decorated his computer store with his collection, which contains every cartoon-decorated dispenser ever made. When he noticed that customers were more interested in talking PEZ than buying monitors, hard drives, or printers, he decided to open the Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia.

High on the museum's success and maybe some sugar, Doss created its crown jewel in 2006—a 7'10" plastic replica modeled after the retired "Snowman B" PEZ dispenser. The working art piece dispenses snowman-shaped dispensers and was named the World's Largest Candy Dispenser by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2007.

And that's when PEZ got pezzed off.

The company sued Doss for trademark violations and demanded that the 85-pound snowman be destroyed before it did something abominable, like fall on someone or chomp someone's hand. PEZ also demanded sales figures for dispensers the museum repackaged and sold in its gift shop. Doss refused to be bullied. He argued that he'd already taken precautions with the museum's name and branding so that visitors know he's unaffiliated with PEZ. He was just a fan, being sued for promoting the product he loves.

In 2010, a judge dismissed the case after the parties agreed to an undisclosed settlement. The popular small-town museum has expanded to include exhibits of classic and banned toys and was named one of the Top 50 American Roadside Attractions by But it keeps its eye on the prize—err, PEZ.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]