Original image

11 Niche Blogs to Start Your Summer

Original image

You come to mental_floss for a great variety of news, knowledge, and trivia. That's wonderful, but just scratch the surface of the internet and you'll find blogs dedicated to very specific subjects -subjects you'd never know had enough material for an ongoing blog. But many of them do -and those that don't will at least have a decent archive of material. Every once in a while, I collect a bunch of them that you might want to look over, because you never know when you'll find a new passion or a new community to enjoy on the internet. Here are eleven such blogs, in no particular order.

1. My Dad Was in a Band

It seems that forming a band was a rite of passage for young men in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. Those young men now have grown children. Right before Fathers Day, a new blog was launched with the intriguing name and concept My Dad Was in a Band. The entries contain photographs, stories, audio recordings, and sometimes videos of dads who were rock stars in their day, submitted by their proud progeny. The music can be awesome, and the pictures will make you smile. So far, there are only two pages of entries, but if your dad was in a band, you are welcome to submit him.

2. Mean Mad Men

Mean Mad Men is a mashup of the AMC TV show Mad Men and the movie Mean Girls. Quotes from Mean Girls are laid over appropriate screenshots from Mad Men. There are four pages now, with new items being added very slowly as they are created.

3. Racial Misprofiling

There has been a recent boom in posts, and even blogs, dedicated to weird stock photography. Between trying to please all possible clients and fulfilling specific orders, stock photo companies offer some of the most ridiculous staged illustrations that it's a wonder no one mined this rich vein of content years ago. Racial Misprofiling is one such blog, where you'll find ridiculous stock photos that come up when you search for the word "Arab." Each has a caption. The caption for the picture above is “He’s starting to ask questions, Jack. I’ve told him you’re Arab a hundred times, but he says the kids at school told him Arabs don’t suffer from rosacea.”

4. Reasons My Son is Crying

One of the hottest recent tumblr blogs is Reasons My Son is Crying. Launched in April, it began when Greg Pembroke was perplexed by how little it took to set his sons, ages 20 months and three years, off on a crying jag. Each picture is accompanied by the reason for the meltdown. Pretty soon, other parents were submitting photos of their children crying for strange reasons. Well, they are strange reasons to an adult, but some things are as important as life and death to a small child. This one shows the son crying because his father broke his cheese in half. The blog went viral so hard and so fast that Conan O'Brien's Team Coco launched a parody site called Reasons My Talk Show Host Is Crying

5. Food Replicator

Food Replicator is a blog of Star Trek recipes. How fun! You'll find recipes like Balso Tonic, Klingon Octopus, Jellied Gree-worms, and Earl Grey Tea. Some are foods mentioned in the various Star Trek series and movies; others are something that one of the characters might have cooked. There's a handy index of recipes, too. 

6. These Boots Are Made For Walkin'

These Boots Are Made For Walkin' lists cover versions of the 1966 Nancy Sinatra song. The blog was started on April 8 and was updated regularly until April 25th. That seems like a short time, but in all it lists 172 versions of the song! So even though it is a Tumblr blog, it is now a website with a respectable archive covering a single subject.

7. Zombie Dead Blog

No, it's not a blog about zombies (although that would be cool). Zombie Dead Blog is a tribute to the weirdness of abandoned blogs. Some of the blogs featured haven't been updated for years, and many seem to be started for a particular rant and then forgotten when the author ran out of steam. Here's an entry of a found blog called Why I Hate Sears, which only lived for two months in 2005.

When I first started working at Sears there were 3 pregnant women. Within the last month we have a grand total of 7 pregnant women. I am not even with a guy yet I am a bit nervous about ending up #8. It's like there are sperm floating in the air! If I go to the bathroom are they going to fly in?!

Recently my fear has subsided thanks to pregnant woman #3. She told me quite firmly to stop drinking the Break Room Dr.Pepper.

The curator of the Zombie Dead Blog spends time combing through the muck of dead and forgotten blogs just so we can enjoy gems like this.

8. Goldblumings

Goldblumings is nothing but flowers in bloom featuring the face of Jeff Goldblum. Because we need more silliness on the internet.

9. The Folk Ye Bump Intae

The Folk Ye Bump Intae is a webcomic of life. Stuart Murray takes home the things people say to him during the day in Glasgow, Scotland. Then he draws them. That's it, but some of them are pretty funny. And many contain NSFW language.

10. Movies in Color

Here's one for pop culture design enthusiasts and movie fans, too. Movies in Color features stills from famous films and their corresponding color palettes. Why? Because it's a neat idea. Blogger Roxy Radulescu says,

So far, the blog has not only been an aesthetic pursuit but also an educational pursuit that showcases the relationship between color, cinematography, set design, and production design. Overall, it is a study of color in films, but has other uses and applications. One of the goals is to give artists color palettes they can use in paintings, films, videos, graphic design, and other pursuits.

It turns out to be pleasing to the eye, for sure.

11. The Metropolitan Museum of Butts

How do you make fine art more fun? Or conversely, how do you publish nude pictures without getting anyone upset? Dedicated to the curation of the backside of fine art, The Metropolitan Museum of Butts manages to do both. The tagline is "Gay or straight, man or woman... everybody likes butts. And everybody has a butt." Most of the pictures are of classical sculptures, taken from the rear view, so to speak, although there are some images of paintings, ceramics, and other artworks. Even animals are represented!

Find more in our previous posts on Niche Blogs.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
Original image

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.