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11 Niche Blogs for Your Perusal

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Mental_floss is what you call a general knowledge blog. Sure, we lean toward the type of content that educates, but the subject matter covers a wide variety of topics: science, history, entertainment, art, food, sports, literature, language, and lots of trivia. We're glad you come here for ways to stretch and feed your brain. But every once in a while, it's nice to discover new sites that are more specialized, some that delve deep into a specific subject or others that feature goofy pictures on a theme. Every once in a while, I dig up some of these "niche" blogs that you might get a kick out of. Here are eleven more of them.  

1. What Ali Wore

Ali walks past the cafe in Berlin where photographer Zoe Spawton works every day at 9:05 AM. Zoe admired the varied and dapper outfits that Ali wore, and finally worked up the courage to ask for a picture. Ali agreed, and a blog was born. Later, Zoe found out that Ali is from Turkey, has lived in Berlin for 44 years, has 18 children, and was a doctor until he retired and became a tailor. Many awesome pictures of Ali and his outfits followed, which you'll find at the Tumblr blog What Ali Wore

2. The Adventures of Beverly Crusher

The Ensemble Studio Theater of Los Angeles has a Tumblr blog starring an action figure of Dr. Beverly Crusher, a character from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The doctor is shown in various situations, from riding a cat to mooning over Captain Picard. Gates McFadden, who portrayed Dr. Crusher, is the Artistic Director of the theater.

3. Put A Poe On It

The blog Put A Poe On It is a tribute to the genius of Edgar Allan Poe. Sort of. Well, no, actually, it's a tribute to puns that can be made on the Poe name and the Poe face. Think of a funny place where Poe's name could go, and chances are someone has already put a Poe on it somewhere in the archives. But if not, you can make your own and submit it.  

4. Research in Progress

Research in Progress is a blog of gifs that scientists and other academics will relate to, each illustrating a frustration one must endure. That doesn't mean the rest of us won't understand -in fact, many of them will probably relate to your life, even if you're not a post-doc. A couple of my favorites are We regret to inform you that your paper has not been accepted and We are pleased to inform you that your paper has been accepted. The image shown here illustrates Theory vs. Practice.

5. The Kitten Covers

How can we improve on classic record album covers? By putting kittens on them! The Kitten Covers does just that. All covers are the work of Alfra Martini.

6. Cats That Look Like Pinup Girls

Since there are so many cat photos on the internet, you can find one to resemble just about anything else. That's the premise behind Cats That Look Like Pinup Girls. Classic girly illustrations are matched with a corresponding cute cat. It's hilarious, but due to some art nudes, this site may be NSFW.

7. Des Hommes et des Chatons

That idea works for men's pictures as well, as illustrated at the blog Des Hommes et des Chatons. Each entry pairs a model, movie star, or other nice image of a man with a cute cat that either wears the same clothing, does the same gestures, or has the same facial expression. If you look through far enough, you will eventually run into photos that are NSFW.  

8. Missed High Five

Have you ever noticed those occasions where two people are going to congratulate each other, but one aims for a high five, while the other offers a handshake, fist bump, hug, or even just ignores the gesture? Or if you both go for a high five and just plain miss each other's hands - well, that's awkward. Missed High Five is a repository of those moments in gif form. The blog didn't last long, only two months, but it remains as a record of the funniest missed connections. The high five shown here actually connected, but this fellow's foot missed the step he was standing on!

9. Horsey Surprise

Ken M. is a master comic troll, leaving the oddest comments all over the web, collected here on the blog Horsey Surprise. He also occasionally posts them at College Humor. Study his methods, and you'll be able to recognize him when his nonsensical comments show up elsewhere.

10. Said to Lady Journos

Despite 70 years of Lois Lane, some folks are still surprised that women can be journalists, while others ignore the fact that they are being quoted. The blog Said to Lady Journos documents the dumb things that come out of the mouths of newsmakers being interviewed. No names are attached, to protect both the speaker (who may be well-known) and the journalist (who could get in hot water for submitting these). I've done news reporting before, and I would bet that every woman who's been in the business for even a short time has stories like these.

11. Superheroes are for girls, too!

Who doesn't aspire to be a superhero? Super strength, the ability to fly, and adventure are things everyone wants! The blog Superheroes are for girls, too! has pictures and stories of young girls as comic book, movie, and TV heroes who fight for truth, justice, and a really cool costume. And as this picture shows, you can be a Hulk and a ballerina at the same time!

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
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
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]