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Hiar Apparent

13 Niche Blogs to Fill Your Weekend

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Hiar Apparent

It’s been almost a year since I posted a list of niche blogs, that is, blogs built around one obscure idea or that are narrowly focused on one subject. Unless it happens to be your favorite topic, you might not want to check these sites every day, but they are all worth a look. And they might even inspire you in some way.

1. Histagrams

The name of the blog Histagrams is a combination of history and Instagram, which reveals its shtick. You’ll find mocked up Instagram entries from folks you know from days of yore, from extinct animals to world leaders to pop culture icons, and what they would post if they lived in the age of Instagram.

2. LOL My Thesis

A new Tumblr blog asks graduate and undergraduate students to submit their thesis in one sentence. Some cannot keep it to strictly one sentence, but that's all right, as long as it's short. The thing is, ask anyone about their thesis and they'll either talk your ear off or say it's too complicated to explain. When boiled down to one line, they become completely ridiculous. It’s called lol my thesis.

3. Sad Desk Lunch

When you feel like the leftovers you took to the office for lunch aren’t the greatest, turn to the blog Sad Desk Lunch and see what other office workers are eating. It might make you feel better. Or it might make you feel worse, in which case, just snap a picture and send it in. The real point of the blog Sad Desk Lunch is that eating without even moving away from your work is in itself sad, no matter how appetizing the food is. Get away from your desk and take a real break!

4. The Container Spore

On a related note, The Container Spore posts pictures collected during the infrequent cleaning of the office refrigerator. If you’ve ever been the one to contribute to this ghastly task, you can imagine the horrors that await you. The upside is that the next time you are assigned the job, you will want to bring your camera and submit pictures of the carnage.

5. Gitmo Books

Guantanamo prison library books for detainees is Tumblr blog that's a photo archive by Charlie Savage of his trip to the naval base. The prisoners who have been there for twelve years now have a lot of time to fill, and the books they have access to have been donated, so it’s an eclectic and often weird selection.

6. TL;DR Wikipedia

If you think the articles in Wikipedia are too long to read, there’s a new Tumblr ready to enlighten you on all manner of subjects. TL;DR Wikipedia bills itself as “Wikipedia condensed for your pleasure.” It’s a hoot! Some of the entries are mkuch funnier than these; I picked out a few that lacked objectionable language to show here. Otherwise the air conditioner entry would be at the top. 

7. Sports Balls Replaced with Cats

Sports Balls Replaced with Cats is exactly what it says on the tin, and it’s just goofy. The blog hasn’t been updated in a while, but the archives are full of laughs.

8. WTFBadRomanceCovers

There is no dearth of websites that make fun of romance novels, or even the covers of them, but there’s always room for more. WTFBadRomanceCovers delivers the goods, with short snarky commentary for each book cover. Their Objectified Scotsman Thursday is particularly fun, with a parade of shirtless men wearing tartan kilts.

9. Hair Apparent

Hair Apparent is an archive of hair styling salons with pun names. There are more of them than you may realize.

10. That's Not How You Pipette

Here’s one specifically for scientists, but especially graduate students, the ones who have to do the delicate but mundane work of science day in and day out. That's Not How You Pipette calls out pop culture illustrations of pipetting about how far from reality they are. I’m told it’s hilarious if you are in the business.

11. Heds Will Roll

You’ve seen plenty of pun headlines on the internet, but there are so many more that never get published, because they are rude, crude, and socially unacceptable. Heds Will Roll is a fairly new Tumblr blog for news headlines that are clever, but were rejected for one reason or another. I’m sure you can figure out why. Be warned that some are offensive, or even NSFW. You can submit yours, too, and check back as the blog receives more material.

12. Texts from TNG

Texts from TNG is an image macro site dedicated to the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Screen shots serve as the inspiration for going off-script and making them much more entertaining out of context. Will Wheaton is a fan. Many have NSFW text. You might also want to check out Texts from TOS and Texts from Deep Space Nine.

13. Photoshop Wil Wheaton

Speaking of Will Wheaton, he’s been a meme for some time now. Specifically, it's the act of putting Wheaton's image, or the image of his erstwhile Star Trek: TNG character Wesley Crusher, into humorous situations via Photoshop. This habit inspired the blog Photoshop Wil Wheaton, which makes a fine repository for those humorous mashups. One man, so many websites.

Find more in our previous lists of Niche Blogs.

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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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Stephen Missal
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]