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Joanna Ebenstein

Coming Soon To Brooklyn: The Morbid Anatomy Museum

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Joanna Ebenstein

In order to see the appeal of the forthcoming Morbid Anatomy Museum, you have to understand the death-centric collection—think skeletons, taxidermy, medical oddities— as neither kitschy nor creepy.

"I like to think about how our attitudes about things have changed; and in particular our attitudes about death, because I think that is the most fertile thing to examine," says Joanna Ebenstein, the founder of the Morbid Anatomy Library, which is the basis of the museum. "The way we think about death now, these images seem completely inappropriate. It seems voyeuristic and wrong and horrible. But I would argue, in some ways, that they were dealing with grief in ways that we don’t really have a capability with any longer because we think it’s so inappropriate."

She is talking specifically about Stanley Burns' collection of eerie photographs depicting deceased Victorian-era children. The portraits were popular at a time when two of every five children died before the age of five and the inevitability of death was encountered more frequently and intimately.

"It really speaks to how much we’ve changed as people that this could become exotic and other. It never was before; there was never a period in history where death was so other than now." Confronting that chasm is, in part, the purpose of the museum.

Ebenstein, who taught herself to skin birds as a child, says she collected objects like those that will be found in the museum in a "low key" way for years. But once the library space opened in 2008, after a month spent visiting and photographing medical museums in Europe and the United States, she started actively looking for finds to fit the aesthetic.

And aesthetic is important. Many of the objects in the museum will be presented without explanation as Ebenstein wants them to elicit interpretation. "I’m not even sure I know what they all are," she says of the myriad of curiosities that are currently cluttering the walk-in closet-sized space that is the Morbid Anatomy Library. "If they’re interesting and I think they suit the space, I just take them home and sometimes I find out more about them and sometimes I don’t."

There's a method to this mystery. "I’m more inspired by 'cabinet of curiosity' type stuff, which is more associative and lets people make their own associations. If people ask then I’m certainly happy to share information. But there are so many other things that you can take from that that aren’t the facts so I don’t like to bias the viewer."

That doesn't mean there won't be plenty to learn from a visit to the museum. Morbid Anatomy has hosted lectures and various interactive classes—taxidermy is particularly popular—since 2009 and will continue to do in the new space.

The idea for a larger museum was born at one of these lectures, two Halloweens ago. Twins Tracy Martin and Tonya Hurley attended a talk Ebenstein was giving on Santa Muerte, Saint Death, and afterwards expressed their interest in seeing more.

"Tracy, who’s now our CEO, said, 'You know, there should be a gift shop cafe like this.' And I said, 'There should be. And it should happen now and it should happen in this neighborhood and we can make this great museum to go with it,'" Ebenstein says of that initial meeting. "So it was just this stupid conversation really and then something happened and it became more serious and I’m not exactly sure when it became more serious, actually."

The three-story space is set to open sometime in May. The basement will host events like make-your-own insect shadow box get-togethers and even a singles mixer for like-minded Brooklynites. The ground floor will have a gift shop and cafe and the top floor will feature an expanded version of the Morbid Anatomy Library along with an exhibition space.

The first show will feature the quirky work of Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter, who is famous for his anthropomorphic scenes such as The Kitten Wedding. A later show will make use of the postmortem photography in an exhibit about memorial art and a third will feature 17th century anatomist and museumologist Fredrik Ruysch's tableaus made using fetal skeletons and human body parts.

The range of topics that interest Ebenstein is visible in the more literal library section of the space. She rattles off the topics: history of medicine, death and art, death and culture, literature, medical museums, art and medicine, natural history, collectors and collecting, freaks and monsters, rational amusements, sexology, cultural theory, the uncanny, and religion.

It's fertile—if somewhat macabre—ground for investigation that has found more than just niche appeal. And if it seems strange to visit a museum with death as the through-line, remember that it is one of just two universal experiences. And a tax museum wouldn't be nearly as interesting.

All photos courtesy of Joanna Ebenstein.

Check out the Morbid Anatomy Museum Kickstarter here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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