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10 Stunning Museums in North America

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Last month, we took a look at some of the most beautiful museums in Europe. Now it’s time to hop across the pond and explore some of the loveliest museums in North America.

1. Chapultepec Castle, Mexico City

This might just be the most beautiful museum in all of North America, if for no other reason than its pure opulence. Throughout its history, Chapultepec Castle has served as a royal palace and home to many of the country’s presidents. In fact, you’ve probably seen the castle before without even recognizing it—it was used as the setting for the Capulet Mansion in 1996’s Romeo and Juliet.

Construction started on the building in 1775, but after the original owner passed away and other legal issues ensued, it didn't have any long-term purpose until it was converted into a Military Academy in 1833. The castle really started to take shape during the Second Mexican Empire when Emperor Maximilian lived there with his wife, Empress Carlota. The Emperor hired top European and Mexican architects to improve the building’s style and to make it more habitable. After the fall of the Empire in 1867, the new president soon decided the site would make a great presidential residence. In 1939, President Lazaro Cardenas established the castle as the home to the National Museum of History and it has remained a museum ever since.

An interesting bit of trivia: Chapultepec Castle is one of only two royal castles in the Americas, and the only one in North America. 

2. Museum of the Revolution, Havana

Speaking of past presidential residences, Cuba’s Museum of the Revolution is also housed in what was once the country’s Presidential Palace. The palace was originally designed by Cuban architect Carlos Maruri and Belgian architect Paul Belau and was first inaugurated in 1920. It features Neo-Classical elements and the luxurious interior was decorated by Tiffany & Co. After the end of the revolution in 1959, it was almost immediately converted into a museum dedicated to the revolutionary war, although some portions also discuss Cuba’s War of Independence against Spain.

3. Renwick Gallery

You can’t have a list of North American museums without including at least one Smithsonian building. The Renwick Gallery—the American craft and decorative arts portion of the Smithsonian collection—might not be the institution's most famous collection, but it is in one of the most impressive buildings, which is also a National Historic Landmark.

The building, designed by James Renwick, Jr., was always meant to be a museum, and when it was originally opened, it housed the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The collection and building were so impressive, it was nicknamed the “American Louvre” when it first opened. The building was almost completed in the 1860s, but it was seized by the U.S. Army in 1861 and used as a warehouse for records and uniforms of the Quarter Master General’s Corps. In 1869, the building was returned to the owner and the museum was finally opened in 1874. After the Corcoran Gallery outgrew the space, it became the federal Court of Claims in 1899. The Court of Claims also ran out of space eventually, and even planned to demolish the building, but Jacqueline Kennedy saw the value of the structure and saved it. In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson gave the building over to the Smithsonian.

4. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

Originally opened in 1933, the main building of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City features a classical Beaux-Arts style that was largely based on the Cleveland Museum of Art’s design. But while the main building is quite nice, it’s the 2005 expansion that really sets this museum apart. The expansion, designed by Steven Holl, increased the size of the museum’s space by 55 percent. This unique design features five glass towers Holl calls “lenses” that allow natural light into the underground Bloch Building. While most art museums shy away from the use of natural light because it can harm the items on display, the specialized glass used in the towers filters out most of the harmful UV rays.

5. Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee

Like the Nelson-Atkins Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum’s most beautiful architectural achievement is actually relatively new. While the museum was first opened in the Milwaukee County War Memorial in 1957, it’s the Quadracci Pavilion and Reiman Bridge, both designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and completed in 2001, that earned the museum a place on this list.

The white concrete pavilion features a moveable shade structure that can be opened up during the day to let in light and folded over the structure during poor weather and at night. The pavilion is home not only to the temporary exhibits gallery, but also to the museum’s store and its restaurant.

6. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Frequently referred to as just “the Met,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest museum in the U.S. and one of the ten largest in the world, occupying a total of 2 million square feet of space. The main building, located just outside of Central Park, was opened in 1872, but it has changed drastically since that time.

When the museum first opened, the high Victorian Gothic design by architect Calvert Vaux was already considered dated; only 20 years later, a new plan was developed to engulf the Vaux building. The current Beaux-Arts entrance was completed in 1902 and since then, more wings have been added, modernistic glass sides have been installed, and the rear of the museum was remodeled as well. The changes have led to the building occupying a space more than 20 times its original space. On the roof, you can get a great view of Central Park and Manhattan’s skyline while enjoying the roof garden’s café and statue exhibitions.

7. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City

Sam valadi, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Often referred to as simply “The Guggenheim” (though it is now one of four Guggenheim museums worldwide), this New York City landmark was officially opened by the Guggenheim Foundation in 1959. The museum first occupied a rented space in 1939 and was called the “Museum of Non-Objective Painting." But after Solomon R. Guggenheim passed away in 1952, the name was changed in his honor.

The famous building was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, who spent 15 years working on the design, sketching out 700 prototypes before finalizing on the cylindrical building that is wider at the top than at the bottom. The building ended up being Wright’s last major work and he died six months before the museum was opened to the public.

8. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

If you’ve ever seen Rocky, then you’re already familiar with one of the impressive aspects of this massive museum—the gorgeous stairs, which have since been dubbed the “Rocky Steps.” But unless you’re training for the fight of your life, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has a lot more to offer than just stairs. In fact, the museum is one of the largest museums in the United States, with a collection of more than 227,000 objects.

While the museum itself was originally opened in 1896, the current building wasn’t completed until 1928. In 2006, the museum announced its first major expansion, which was designed by Frank Gehry and built entirely underground below the famous stairway so it would not alter the museum’s façade—though Gehry promised it will still be an amazing feat of architecture that will impress museum goers. While the expansion is not yet complete, when it is, the museum’s display space will be increased by 60 percent.

9. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

This museum was founded in 1900 and moved into its current space in 1910—well, part of its current space, that is.

While the 1817 Gregorian Manor is still part of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the museum itself has expanded at least six times since 1916. The most recent modification to the building was designed by Gehry and required the destruction of the 1992 Post-Modernist wing. One of the challenges faced by the architect was to unite the many wings of the building into one cohesive form. While there was a lot of negative criticism prior to the renovation’s completion, the building received widespread praise by architecture critics when it was finished. In fact, the New York Times wrote, “Rather than a tumultuous creation, this may be one of Mr. Gehry's most gentle and self-possessed designs… a masterly example of how to breathe life into a staid old structure.”

On an interesting note, while Gehry was born in Toronto, this 2005 project was his first work in his homeland of Canada.

10. Museo Soumaya, Mexico City

Yes, another Frank Gehry museum masterpiece, although this time he worked as an engineer while Mexican architect Fernando Romero created the original design. The Museo Soumaya was only opened in 2011, though the museum has been collecting work and displaying from famous European artists since 1994 and has already gathered 66,000 pieces of art. The exterior of the building is covered in 16,000 hexagonal aluminum tiles and the floors are made from marble imported from Greece.

I’m sure many of you have favorite museum buildings, so feel free to share your pick for the most beautiful North American museums in the comments.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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