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William Libbey

11 Images from the American Museum of Natural History's Archives

Original image
William Libbey

There are plenty of awesome things that aren't on display at New York City's American Museum of Natural History. But now, anyone with the internet can get a peek at the museum's archives with its new online image database. The site features more than 7000 images from the institution's history—many of them never before seen by the public—including archival photographs, rare book illustrations, drawings, notes, letters, art, and Museum memorabilia.

There are an estimated one million images in the museum's collection, according to Tom Baione, Harold Boeschenstein Director in the Department of Library Services at AMNH. What's currently available on the site "came about organically," he says, "because we had requests for certain materials, maybe for a book project or an exhibit."

Eventually, the hope is that the museum will be able to get funding to digitize certain collections, but in the meantime, the museum's staff is digitizing negatives and other materials by size. "We could cherry pick all the good images but we figure eventually we want to have everything," Baione says. "In most cases, we have the original negative in our collection. They are stored on shelves in boxes by size, so we’re just going shelf by shelf."

To digitize the collections, negatives and lantern slides were scanned, and rare books were photographed. It's a delicate process. "The lantern slides are all printed on glass, so they’re inherently more scratchable, and many of our negatives are on glass too," Baione says. "They are handling big sheets of glass and they’re laying them down on another piece of glass so your hands are soft, and maybe your lap is soft, but all these materials around you are hard—so if you lose your grip, that image is gone." Rare books pose their own challenges: "The books don’t always want to open the way we want them to, so we have to do some tricks with the camera to get a good shot of the book without breaking the binding."

Baione talked us through a few of his favorite photos from the collection, which you can see below. "There are two words we use around here a lot: conservation and preservation," he says. "Conservation is fixing something. Preservation is making sure you don’t have to fix it. So by digitizing these images, we are preserving them because once we have a very good high resolution image we don’t have to go back to the original negative again."

1. Moving section of giant sequoia into Hall of North American Forests, 1912.

Julius Kirschner 

Bringing a section of a huge sequoia tree into the museum involved cutting it into two or three pieces, according to Baione. "I can tell by the floor where that was, and that’s kind of neat," he says. "You look at the guys who are actually doing the moving and they’re in some decidedly different kind of clothes. If you look at the guy who is holding some kind of leather, his work clothes look filthy."

2. Painting of the suggested Canada Lynx and Snowshoe Hare Group habitat, Hall of North American Mammals, 1935.

This painting of the Canada lynx and hare diorama looks quite different from the finished product. "In the diorama itself, the rabbit is taking shelter under a bush and the lynx is totally on top of him, but the rabbit has no idea," Baione says. "It did change and it’s interesting to see the thought process behind how things changed as they were being created."

3. Carl Lumholtz at granary, giant "olla", Cave Valley, Chihuahua, Mexico, 1891.

William Libbey

That big jar, Baione says, is the granary: "These cave dwelling communities would store grain to keep it dry and free from pests like rats or squirrels."

4. Girl holding bull frog, Natural Science Center, 1958.

Robert Elwood Logan

The museum still has a Natural Science Center like the one this girl visited in 1958. "They have demonstrations and live animals," Baione says. "There’s something called a discovery room where kids can go, and provided they’re here with a parent, they have specimens that kids can touch and they have reproductions of artifacts that can also interact with. There’s still lots of fun stuff for kids."

5. Hand colored lantern slide of Roy Chapman Andrews and George Olsen at nest of "the even dozen dinosaur eggs,” Third Asiatic Expedition, Mongolia, 1925.

James B. Shackelford

Lantern slides, Baione explains, are photographic prints made on glass. An artist would handcolor the slide, which would then be projected. This particular slide comes from the expedition where museum explorer Ray Chapman Andrews and his crew discovered fossilized dinosaur eggs. "Knowing Andrews, it was probably a little while afterwards—after they could clean up the mess and pose a little bit," Baione says. "It’s a little bit of a studio shot. But a good one. It was a huge deal because it was the first time something like that was discovered."

6. Installing models for the Forest Floor exhibit, 1958.

Alex J. Rota

Visitors to the museum will recognize this particular display. "The forest floor is where a lot of decomposition goes on, so in terms of ecology and nature, it is an important place," Baione says. "It’s neat to see the guy who created it in the diorama, pushing it around, getting in the right position. And it’s still here!"

7. Plant, botanical illustration by Arthur A. Jansson, with colors noted, for use in Plains Group, Akeley Hall of African Mammals, c. 1930.

The museum's dioramas are designed to demonstrate what environment an animal would have lived in, down to the plants and backgrounds (which all show real places). "In the Arts and Memorabilia section, you’ll see lots of sketches that were made in the field when they were planning some African mammal dioramas," Baione says. "They would go and make sketches of the place, but they would also collect specimens of the plant and immediately sketch them so that they could reproduce them in the dioramas themselves." While the rocks and tree bark is occasionally real, most of the plants were reproduced with paper. "They don’t want to put things in the diorama that could be attractive to insects that would go in and try to eat it," Baione says. "A lot of the vegetable matter is reproduced from paper."

8. Carlton Beil inspecting school service truck, 1950.

Alex J. Rota

Long before Internet databases, the museum still found a way to get its collections to knowledge-hungry kids: By lending out its lantern slide collections to schools, placing them in suitcases and delivering them in museum-authorized trucks like the one above. "The teacher would get a box of lantern slides with a script and then could go through one by one and discuss with the script what was going on in each of the pictures," Baione says. "They would show everything from expeditions to the far east or to Africa or South America or the Arctic. The museum had a thriving enterprise of making up these sets and delivering them to the schools. There was also a collection of miniature dioramas the size of a suitcase. These could be lent out to schools. Some had actual stuffed animals in them and others had a collection of pine cones or different types of fibers or stones so that kids could begin to be able to identify those things."

9. Green frog dissection and skeleton from Rösel von Rosenhof's Historia naturalis ranarum nostratium, 1758.

Denis Finnin

"It’s so cool that someone was able to carve that image into a piece of copper and then print it," Baione says. "That’s remarkable."

10. Alaska brown bear, specimen measurement chart for use in Alaska Brown Bear Group, Hall of North American Mammals, 1939.

Though the museum doesn't do taxidermy anymore (any that's done takes place outside of the museum), there was a point when most of it was done in-house—and to create the most accurate mounts possible, taxidermists collected reference of living animals and recorded specimens' measurements. This particular item comes from a filing cabinet of a man in the museum's exhibition and appropriate department. "These were his working files," Baione says. "They included anatomical sketches of the actual animals in the field, things from newspapers and magazines, images of the animals moving. Drawings that look like something you’d see at the wall of a butcher’s shop with all the dimensions."

Why did a taxidermist need all of this detail? Because creating an accurate, lifelike animal requires so much more than just stuffing skin. "They take a detailed measurement of the animal once it’s been collected, and then the skin comes off and then a sculpture is made in wax or clay—often with the animals actual bones inside," Baione says. "Then musculature of the animal, as sketched by the artist, is sculpted. A mold is made of that, and a lightweight cast is made of the animal’s musculature. Eyes and teeth are added and then the skin is reapplied to that cast. They’ll make a construction to make the tail stick up, there might be some cardboard stuck in ears, then install the eyes, teeth and paint the hooves. They’ll put in artificial or genuine nails. All of these tools together help the taxidermist come in and recreate that animal."

11. Hand colored lantern slide view of American Museum of Natural History, original building, New York City, 1883.

Compared to what the museum looks like now, the original 1883 structure seems pretty small. But "it’s actually a pretty big building in the grand scheme of buildings," Baione says. "If you put the museum next to your house it would seem like a shed. If you look at that building, you have to realize that you’re looking at the basement level, the first floor, second floor, third floor, fourth floor, fifth floor and the attic. So it’s really like a 7 story building. It’s skinny and part of the reason for that is it was actually a pretty sizable building at the time, and because they knew that other buildings would eventually surround it. So that was the plan."

On Monday, April 28, the museum is celebrating the launch of the site with a Slide Slam. Get your tickets here!

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]