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Museum of Clean

7 Offbeat Museums Worth Visiting

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Museum of Clean

Unleash your inner oddball! The summer nights may be dwindling, but you still have time to visit these far-out museums.

1. Museum of Clean: Pocatello, Idaho

If the hoarder in your life needs an intervention, look no further than the Museum of CleanAt 75,000 sq. feet, the museum is half a city block dedicated to teaching us how to tidy our lives. Originally a museum of cleaning supplies, the museum encourages people to declutter and live simply. The main attraction for neat freaks? A collection of almost 1000 vacuums (above). The exhibits, by the way, are spotless.

2. The House on the Rock: near Spring Green, Wisconsin

Flickr: DonovanBeeson

Put this on your list of things to see right now—it is the capital of kitsch. Possibly the largest collection of oddities in the world, the House on the Rock is every roadside attraction packed into one. The complex is colossal; it can take hours to navigate. You’ll see the world’s largest carousel, a gaudy whirling wheel with 269 animals and 182 chandeliers (above). The main attraction, though, is the infinity room, a 218-foot cantilever over the Wyoming Valley. 

3. Museum of Bad Art: Brookline and Somerville, Massachusetts

Museum of Bad Art

Marketed as “art too bad to be ignored,” the Museum of Bad Art owns over 250 terrible pieces that were salvaged from thrift shops and trash bags. MOBA currently runs out of two locations, with 25 works usually exhibited at once. If you love art and have a sense of humor, you’ll love the collection of watered-down watercolors and fudged paint-by-numbers. 

4. The American Sign Museum: Camp Washington, Ohio

The American Sign Museum

If the hum of neon makes you nostalgic, a trip to the American Sign Museum will send you daydreaming down memory lane. It displays over 500 signs from the late 1800s to the 1970s, showcasing colorful relics that dotted Main Streets of yore.

5. World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things:  Lucas, Kansas

Erika Nelson loves roadside attractions as much as she loves superlatives. Since 2002, she’s traveled the country looking for the world’s largest objects (like the 8-ton ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas, or the world’s largest ketchup bottle in Collinsville, Illinois). After visiting the attraction, she makes a small model and adds it to her traveling museum. Her goal? To get more Americans to appreciate the country’s unique roadside stops and shops instead of the generic malls and restaurants we’re so used to visiting.

6. Museum of Jurassic Technology: Los Angeles, California

Museum of Jurassic Technology

This place will make your brain hurt. But go anyway. Just don’t be disappointed by the lack of dinosaurs or cavemen. The Museum of Jurassic Technology is a confusing, amusing labyrinth of curios—a house of wonders parodying the museums of yesteryear. Like the Cabinet of Curiosities popular during the Renaissance, the exhibits are unclassifiable. It’s art. It’s history. It’s science. It’s satire. It’s fact-filled tidbits wrapped in absolute bologna. 

7. National Mustard Museum: Middleton, Wisconsin

Flickr: Ann Althouse

Barry Levenson was depressed. His beloved Red Sox had just lost the 1986 World Series, and he couldn’t cope. To distract himself from the loss, he did what any fan would do—he started a mustard collection. Now his museum displays over 5500 kinds of mustards from over 70 countries. The gigantic store houses all things mustard and is home base to the condiment’s unofficial university: Poupon U.

From the morbid Mütter Museum in Philly to the Musée Mécanique in San Francisco, there are hundreds more wacky museums in the States. Give us your recommendations in the comments!

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]