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Alaska!

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ThinkStock

If you want to learn about a place, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home. 

This week we’re heading to America’s last great frontier to discover the quirky sights and sounds of Alaska.

The Hammer Museum

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Dave Pahl has been collecting hand tools since he moved to Alaska in 1973.  For many years, he and his wife Carol lived on a small plot of land that had no running water or electricity, so keeping plenty of tools around for home repairs became a necessity.  During the snow-induced downtime of cold Alaskan winters, Dave refit old hammerheads with new handles, giving him a greater appreciation for nail drivers, as well as an ever-growing collection of unique specimens.  By 2001, Dave’s hammer collection had become too large to keep at home, so he and Carol purchased a small house on Main Street in Haines, Alaska, and opened the world’s only Hammer Museum

It might sound like the most boring place in America, but the variety in the collection never fails to amaze visitors. Among the items on display is a small hammer that smacked against the tables at Harlem’s Cotton Club in the 1920s to show the crowd’s appreciation for a musical act. Another, a ball of solid dolerite, was used by ancient Egyptians to chisel stone for the third pyramid at Giza. There are Masonic lodge hammers used to call meetings to order, warhammers from China and Rome, and even a hammer used to test the quality of cheese.  The collection includes hammers made from Waterford Crystal, whale blubber, and one consisting of hundreds of sheets of paper.  But the pride and joy of the museum is an 800-year old Tlingit “warrior’s pick,” a hammer that was used to whack an unwilling slave across the head so the body could be buried as a sacrifice when building a new longhouse. Pahl found the ancient tool while adding a basement to the building shortly before the museum opened.  

If you ever find yourself in Haines, Alaska, you can’t miss the museum—there’s a 20-foot statue of a hammer in the front. At any given time you’ll find about 1500 hammers on display from a collection that reportedly numbers over 7000 specimens. 

The Fur Rondy

Even with modern conveniences like central heating, high-speed internet access, and hundreds of TV channels, Alaskan winters can be pretty tough. So it’s no surprise that after so many months of cabin fever, many folks need to get out of the house and blow off some steam. Since 1935, Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, has found this sweet release with a festival of sport called the Fur Rendezvous, or “Fur Rondy” for short.

Created to welcome the mountain-dwelling miners and trappers that arrived at the first signs of spring in order to sell their winter haul, the Fur Rondy originally featured fairly standard athletic events like skiing, hockey, basketball, boxing, and a children’s sled dog race. While many of those competitions are still going strong, over time, quirkier contests have been added to a revolving lineup of events that reflect the unique culture of Alaska. Today, one of the highlights of the festival is the outhouse races, where teams see who can push an outhouse on skis across the finish line first.

The Snowshoe Softball tournament is always fun to watch, as is the fast-paced action of Yukigassen—a game of capture the flag played with snowballs—where the winning team goes on to represent the U.S. in the World Championship tournament in Japan. The snow-packed streets of Anchorage play host to two major contests: The Frostbite Footrace features serious competitors and fun runners wearing the craziest costumes they can find, and the World Championship Sled Dog Race, a grueling three-day competition with some of the best mushers and snow dogs from around the world. And not to be outdone by Pamplona, Spain, the Rondy has the Running of the Reindeer, where Santa’s hooved helpers sprint through crowds of costumed runners who try to stay ahead of the antlers coming from behind.

For those less athletically inclined, the Fur Rondy has plenty to offer, including native artwork, snow sculptures, carnival rides, stage performances at the Goose Theatre, the Rondy on Ice figure skating show, and one of the festival’s original events: the fur, horn, and hide auctions, featuring the finest in animal pelts to keep you warm on cold Alaskan nights. You can also buy a ticket for the long-running Miner’s and Trapper’s Charity Ball to see the crowning of a new “Mr. Fur Face” in the Alaska State Beard and Moustache Contest.

The festival has already closed for 2013, but be sure to check the official website for a full schedule of next year’s dates and events. 

Know the story behind an unusual person or place in your state?  Maybe a little-known urban legend that others should hear?  Is your state home to the largest ball of twine or a creepy abandoned theme park? Is there a fun festival that everyone should attend? Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States!

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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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Amazon
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This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
May 28, 2017
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Amazon

As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers (including Amazon) and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting! 

GADGETS, TOYS, AND MEDIA

EasyAcc 6000mAh MFi Slim Compact Power Bank, Built-in MFi Cable for Apple Lightning Devices, iPhones, iPads, iPods, and USB Port for Universal USB devices for $18.39 (list price $49.99)

WizGear Universal Air Vent Magnetic Car Mount Holder with Fast Swift-Snap Technology for Smartphones and Mini Tablets, Black for $6.99 (list price $18.99)

HQDmall Fidget Cube Anxiety Stress Relief And Relieves Stress Attention Focus for Children and Adults Anxiety Attention Toy, Black for $7.99 (list price $29.99)

SENSO Bluetooth Headphones, Best Wireless Sports Earphones w/ Mic IPX7 Waterproof HD Stereo Sweatproof Earbuds for Gym Running Workout 8 Hour Battery Noise Cancelling Headsets for $36.97 (list price $169.99)

Fitbit Flex 2, Black (US Version) for $59.95 (list price $99.95)

Anker PowerCore Fusion 5000 2-in-1 Portable Charger and Wall Charger, AC Plug with 5000mAh Capacity, PowerIQ Technology, For iPhone, iPad, Android, Samsung Galaxy and More for $21.99 (list price $50.99)

Anker 60W 6-Port USB Wall Charger, PowerPort 6 for iPhone 7 / 6s / Plus, iPad Pro / Air 2 / mini, Galaxy S7 / S6 / Edge / Plus, Note 5 / 4, LG, Nexus, HTC and More for $25.99 (list price $79.99)

AELEC S350 Bluetooth Headphones Wireless In-Ear Sports Earbuds Sweatproof Earphones Noise Cancelling Headsets with Mic for Running Jogging for $21.99 (list price $129.99)

SoundPEATS Bluetooth Headset V4.1 Wireless Earbud Mini In-ear Bluetooth Earpiece Car Headset Hand-free calling with Mic for iPhone/Android/Windows 10 Cellphones, Tablets and Computers (Black) for $15.29 (list price $39.99)

TaoTronics Bluetooth Receiver / Car Kit, Portable Wireless Audio Adapter 3.5 mm Stereo Output (Bluetooth 4.0, A2DP, Built-in Microphone) for Home Audio Music Streaming Sound System for $13.49 (list price $15.99)

Seagate Backup Plus 4TB Portable External Hard Drive USB 3.0, Silver (STDR4000900) for $109.99 (list price $129.99)

Funko POP TV: Golden Girls Dorothy Action Figure for $9.00 (list price $12.00)

LEGO STAR WARS TIE Striker 75154 for $45.88 (list price $69.99)

Ace Armor Shield (6 PACK) Screen Protector for the Fitbit Alta HR with free lifetime Replacement warranty for $7.85 (list price $11.99)

VicTsing Shower Speaker, Wireless Waterproof Speaker with 5W Driver, Suction Cup, Buit-in Mic, Hands-Free Speakerphone-Gray for $20.99 (list price $24.99)

Seagate Expansion 2TB Portable External Hard Drive USB 3.0 (STEA2000400) for $69.99 (list price $73.99)

Anker Bluetooth Folio Keyboard Case for iPad Air 2 - Smart Case with Auto Sleep / Wake, Comfortable Keys and 6-Month Battery Life Between Charges (Not compatible with iPad 9.7 inch/iPad Air) for $35.99 (list price $69.99)

Anker 2.4G Wireless Vertical Ergonomic Optical Mouse, 800 / 1200 /1600DPI, 5 Buttons - Black for $19.99 (list price $49.99)

FRiEQ Universal Waterproof Case for Outdoor Activities - Waterproof bag for Apple iPhone 7, 7 Plus, 6S, 6S Plus, 6, 6 Plus, 5S; Galaxy S6, S4; HTC One X, Galaxy Note 3, Note 2; LG G2 - IPX8 Certified to 100 Feet (Black) for $6.99 (list price $19.99)

Fritesla 20000mah Power Bank 4USB Portable Charger for Smartphones (Green) for $24.99 (list price $100.00)

KITCHEN

Moscow Mule Hammered Copper 18 Ounce Drinking Mug, Set of 4 for $21.48 (list price $40.00)

OXO Good Grips Nylon Potato Masher for Non-Stick Cookware for $6.99 (list price $9.59)

Imarku Pro Kitchen 8 inch Chef's Knife High Carbon Stainless Steel Sharp Knives Ergonomic Equipment for $29.99 (list price $99.99)

Lodge L9OG3 Cast Iron Round Griddle, Pre-Seasoned, 10.5-inch for $16.19 (list price $24.00)

Cuisinart CSBP-100 3-in-1 Stuffed Burger Press for $11.47 (list price $14.99)

Wilton Nonstick 6-Cavity Donut Pan for $8.15 (list price $9.99)

Cuisinart Set of 3 Fine Mesh Stainless Steel Strainers, CTG-00-3MS for $11.21 (list price $22.00)

BLACK+DECKER GD2011B Family Sized Electric Griddle, 20 x 11-Inch, Black for $16.57 (list price $39.99)

Circulon Sunrise Whistling Teakettles, 1.5-Quart, Black for $19.99 (list price $40.00)

Rachael Ray Cucina Hard Porcelain Enamel Nonstick Covered Round Casserole, 4.5-Quart, Agave Blue for $27.69 (list price $100.00)

VonShef 7- Egg Electric Cooker Stainless Steel with Poacher & Steamer Attachment for $19.94 (list price $34.99)

The Original GORILLA GRIP (TM) Set of 3 Non-Slip Reversible Cutting Boards, BPA Free, FDA Approved Materials (Set of 3 Boards: Green) for $19.99 (list price $39.99)

Presto 04820 PopLite Hot Air Popper for $17.55 (list price $29.99)

Contigo AUTOSEAL Transit Stainless Steel Travel Mug, 16 oz, Polar White with Grayed Jade Lid Accent for $15.55 (list price $24.99)

AUTOSPOUT Straw Ashland, 24oz, Monaco for $8.49 (list price $12.99)

HOME

URPOWER 2nd Version Essential Oil Diffuser, 100ml Aroma Essential Oil Cool Mist Humidifier with Adjustable Mist Mode,Waterless Auto Shut-off and 7 Color LED Lights Changing for Home Office Baby for $15.95 (list price $39.99)

Radha Beauty Aromatherapy Top 6 Essential Oils 100% Pure & Therapeutic grade - Basic Sampler Gift Set & Premium Kit - 6/10 Ml (Lavender, Tea Tree, Eucalyptus, Lemongrass, Orange, Peppermint) for $14.95 (list price $79.99)

Sherpa Throw Blanket Lt Grey 50x60 Reversible Fuzzy Microfiber All Season Blanket for Bed or Couch by Bedsure for $23.99 (list price $59.99)

Hoover Vacuum Cleaner WindTunnel 3 High Performance Pet Bagless Corded Upright Vacuum UH72630PC for $139.51 (list price $189.99)

LANGRIA Shredded Memory Foam Pillow Firm for Optimal Orthopedic Support, Removable Washable Bamboo Cover Hypoallergenic Anti-Bacterial CertiPUR-US Certification,Queen Size for $12.99 (list price $59.99)

Downy Unstopables In-Wash Scent Booster Beads - FRESH, 26.5 oz. for $10.97 (list price $15.99)

Aszaro Cedar Balls, Cedar Cubes & Cedar Sachets 40 pc Combo Pack | 20 Natural Cedar Wood Balls, 20 Blocks & 5 Bonus Sachets | Ward Off Moths, Mildew And Mustiness For Easy Garment Care for $17.97 (list price $25.99)

Garment Steamer, Holan Portable Handheld Clothes Steamer, Fast Heat-up and 200ml Capacity Fabric Steamer with Two Brushes Perfect for Home and Travel for $17.99 (list price $39.90)

Monkey Hook Picture Hanger Home and Office Pack, 30 pc set for $11.25 (list price $19.75)

Queen Size SafeRest Premium Hypoallergenic Waterproof Mattress Protector - Vinyl Free for $29.95 (list price $95.98)

LUCID Premium Hypoallergenic 100% Waterproof Mattress Protector - 15 Year Warranty - Vinyl Free - Queen for $19.99 (list price $40.00)

HANSLIN Desk Top Swivel Alarm Clock for $23.75 (list price $29.99)

WBM Himalayan Glow 1002 Hand Carved Natural Salt Lamp with Genuine Neem Wood Base/Bulb and Dimmer Control, Crystal, Amber, 8 - 9-Inch, 8 - 11 lb for $30.98 (list price $39.95)

 

HEALTH AND BEAUTY

BS-MALL Makeup Brushes Premium Makeup Brush Set Synthetic Kabuki Cosmetics Foundation Blending Blush Eyeliner Face Powder Brush Makeup Brush Kit (10pcs, Golden Black) for $9.99 (list price $39.99)

Nerdwax Stop Slipping Glasses as Seen on Shark Tank for $10.99 (list price $14.99)

Crest 3D White Luxe Whitestrip Teeth Whitening Kit, Glamorous White, 14 Treatments - Packaging May Vary for $34.69 (list price $44.99)

Gillette Fusion Manual Men’s Razor Blade Refills, 12 Count, Mens Razors / Blades for $33.97 (list price $47.99)

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen, Broad Spectrum Spf 45, 3 Fl. Oz., Pack Of 2 for $11.24 (list price $14.99)

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist Sunscreen, Broad Spectrum Spf 30, 5 Oz. for $7.47 (list price $10.99)

Thinksport Kid's Safe Sunscreen SPF 50+, 3oz for $10.87 (list price $11.99)

Colgate MaxFresh Wisp Disposable Travel Toothbrush, Peppermint - 24 Count for $3.41 (list price $7.99)

100% Pure Australian Tea Tree Essential Oil with 45% Terpinen-4-ol, 1 fl. oz. A Known Solution to Help in Fighting Acne, Toenail Fungus, Dandruff, Yeast Infections, Cold Sores.. for $10.95 (list price $65.00)

American Crew Forming Cream, 3 Ounce for $7.95 (list price $9.67)

Aquasentials Mesh Pouf Bath Sponge (8 Pack) for $8.49 (list price $12.99)

Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash Redness Soothing Facial Cleanser With Salicylic Acid, 6 Fl. Oz. for $6.50 (list price $10.69)

Edge Shave Gel for Men Sensitive Skin - 7 Ounce (Pack of 6) for $17.82 (list price $26.99)

NIVEA Men Platinum Protect 3-in-1 Body Wash 16.9 Fluid Ounce for $3.11 (list price $4.99)

Gillette Fusion ProGlide Manual Men's Razor Blade Refills, 4 Count, Mens Razors / Blades for $13.22 (list price $18.03)

Radha Beauty Rosehip Oil 4 oz - 100% Pure Cold Pressed Certified Organic for $13.95 (list price $49.99)

OFFICE, SCHOOL, AND CRAFTS

SwissGear 1900 Scansmart TSA Laptop Backpack - Black for $54.99 (list price $130.00)

Cardinal by TOPS Products OneStep Printable Table of Contents and Index Dividers, 52-Tab, Numbered, Multi-Color (60990) for $7.15 (list price $11.51)

Chartpak Self-Adhesive Vinyl Capital Letters, 6 Inches High, Black, 38 per Pack (01184) for $16.65 (list price $21.99)

Fineliner Color Pen Set,0.38mm Colored Fine Line Point,Assorted Colors,10-Count for $6.58 (list price $9.99)

uni-ball 207 Impact Gel Pens, Bold Point (1.0mm), Blue, 12 Count for $20.00 (list price $26.46)

Elmer's Liquid School Glue, Washable, 1 Gallon, 1 Count for $14.08 (list price $20.49)

Westcott Jumbo Circles Template (T-826) for $4.31 (list price $7.00)

Amzdeal Magnifier Eye Glasseses Eye Loupe For Reading Drawing Making handicrafts Repairing for $11.89 (list price $39.99)

OUTDOORS, GARDEN, AND SPORTS

Coleman 12 oz. Enamel Mug for $3.49 (list price $8.98)

Igloo 5 Gallon Seat Top Beverage Jug with spigot for $22.99 (list price $39.99)

Mountainsmith Pinnacle Single Trekking Poles, Evergreen for $12.91 (list price $19.95)

Polar Bottle Insulated Water Bottle (24-Ounce) (White) for $7.99 (list price $11.99)

ALPS Mountaineering Crescent Lake 0-Degree Sleeping Bag (Regular) for $43.19 (list price $53.99)

Tapirus Extendable Marshmallow Roasting 4 Camping Sticks | Durable Stainless Steel Equipment BBQ Skewers With Insulated Handles | Telescopic Campfire Forks Utensils For Smores, Hot Dogs & Shish Kebabs for $14.95 (list price $25.99)

OUTERDO Monocular Dual Focus Telescope Camping Wildlife Hunting Surveillance Sporting Events Traveling Scope Waterproof Optics Zoom Bright and Clear with 10 Magnification 16x52 for $12.99 (list price $18.89)

TaylorMade 2016 Tour Preferred Golf Balls (1 Dozen) for $27.99 (list price $39.00)

VicTsing 50ft Expanding Hose, Strongest Expandable Garden Hose with Double Latex Core, Solid Brass Connector and Extra Strength Fabric for Car Garden Hose Nozzle for $34.99 (list price $39.99)

Insulated Picnic Basket - Lunch Tote Cooler Backpack w/ Flatware Two Place Setting (Black & Red) for $25.99 (list price $31.04)

Ekogrips BBQ Oven Gloves | Best Versatile Heat Resistant Grill Gloves | Lifetime Replacement | Insulated Silicone Oven Mitts For Grilling | Waterproof | Full Finger, Hand, Wrist Protection | 3 Sizes for $18.27 (list price $57.99)

Lightning Nuggets Inc 0-47815-14175-7 12-Count Firestarters for $5.54 (list price $12.99)

Imarku BBQ Grill & Baking Mats, Durable , Heat Resistant, Set of 10 Non-Stick Grilling Accessories for $23.99 (list price $49.99)

TOOLS

TIWIN LED Light Bulbs 100 watt equivalent (11W),Soft White (2700K), General Purpose A19 LED Bulbs,E26 Base ,UL Listed, Pack of 6 for $19.99 (list price $23.99)

Kidde FA110 Multi Purpose Fire Extinguisher 1A10BC, 1 Pack for $19.98 (list price $42.99)

Sugru Moldable Glue - Black & White (Pack of 8) for $14.80 (list price $21.25)

5 Pack Ipow LED Battery-powered Wireless Night Light Stick Tap Touch Lamp Stick-on Push Light for Closets, Cabinets, Counters, or Utility Rooms,Cordless Touch Light,Batteris Not Included for $9.97 (list price $11.99)

Dimmable LED Desk Lamp, 4 Lighting Modes(Studying, Reading, Relaxing, Sleeping), 5 Level Dimming, 1 Hour Auto Timer, Touch Sensitive Control, Modern, - Piano Black for $29.97 (list price $109.00)

KEDSUM 200pcs Adhesive Cable Clips, Wire Clips, Car Cable Organizer, Cable Wire Management, Drop Cable Clamp Wire Cord Tie Holder for Car, Office and Home for $8.99 (list price $19.99)

GlowBowl A-00452-01 Motion Activated Toilet Nightlight for $10.40 (list price $24.99)

Mothers 07240 California Gold Clay Bar System for $14.24 (list price $15.37)

J5 Tactical V1-Pro Flashlight The Original 300 Lumen Ultra Bright, LED 3 Mode Flashlight for $12.95 (list price $29.95)

Oria Precision Screwdriver Set, 60 in 1 Magnetic Driver Kit with 54 Bits, Professional Electronics Repair Tool Kit for iPhone/ Cell Phone/ iPad/ Tablet/ PC/ MacBook and Other Electronics for $13.99 (list price $26.99)

SE MH1047L Illuminated Multi-Power LED Head Magnifier for $8.94 (list price $15.44)

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