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Erin McCarthy

10 Fun Things in AMNH's Memorabilia Collection

Original image
Erin McCarthy

Everyone knows that New York City’s American Museum of Natural History has incredible collections of everything from dinosaur fossils and bioluminescent fish specimens to ancient Chinese robes and meteorites to hippo skulls and rare books. But what people maybe don’t realize is that the museum has a unit—the Research Library’s Memorabilia Collection—devoted to cataloguing its own history, including scientific equipment, old exhibits, and the personal collections of notable contributors to the museum. The Memorabilia Collection is housed in an off-the-beaten path section of the building near one of the museum’s rare book rooms. Tom Baione, Harold Boeschenstein Director of the Department of Library Services, let us poke around—under close supervision, of course.

1. Vintage Cameras

When you first enter the Memorabilia Room, you notice almost an entire row of shelves devoted to vintage camera equipment, including some large format cameras, and viewfinders. Much of it still works!

2. Lemur Bust

This bust of a “lemuroid primate” came from a long closed exhibit created by a museum curator, William King Gregory, called “Our Face from Fish to Man” (Gregory also wrote a book on the subject). The display—which went up in 1929 and would definitely not be considered accurate or politically correct today—included a number of busts, starting with a Devonian shark and ending with the bust of an “Australian bushman” and, finally, the head of a classic "Greek Athlete," which can also be seen in the Memorabilia Room.

Like most objects in the Memorabilia Collection, the bust is stored in a custom box constructed for it in the Library’s Conservation Lab.

3. Radiolarian Model

This beautiful model of a Radiolarian—tiny protozoa, found in the ocean, that come in a wide variety of shapes—was made by a glass blower at the museum. Written on the inside of the box is "Haeckel," for Ernst Haeckel, a scientist who published a book on these organisms in 1862, and the person for whom this species is named.

3. Microscopes

A collection of vintage microscopes were left to the museum in 2009 by Ronald Wilkinson, a Washington DC-based collector of rare books and scientific equipment. To avoid having to lift the delicate scopes out of the boxes, the museum’s conservators built some boxes with transparent removable front panels: simply have a look, or lift off the top and slide the front up and out.

4. Plaster Hadrosaur and Stegosaurus

Think of a dinosaur—any dinosaur. Chances are the image you’re conjuring up in your mind was drawn by famous dino illustrator Charles Knight, who worked at the museum in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He made these models of a Hadrosaur and a Stegosaurus out of plaster during that time.

A number of Knight’s paintings from the late 1800s and early 1900s also recently made it to the museum’s collection. They were mounted on thick artist’s board that contained acid, which was leaching into the paintings; the museum’s conservator painstakingly shaved off the board, then used an ultrasonic welder to seal the artwork in layers of mylar for protection.

6. Planetarium Pieces

The original Hayden Planetarium, designed by the New York City-based architects Samuel Breck Parkman Trowbridge and Goodhue Livingston (they also designed the Stock Exchange!), opened in 1935; it was dismantled in 1997 to make room for a new, state-of-the-art facility, which opened in 2000. The museum saved some very distinctive art deco wall sconces and architectural fragments to document the building—including pieces of the exterior stonework from the old planetarium—and stored them in the Memorabilia Collection.

7. Polar Bear Diorama

In the early- to mid-1900s, the Museum had a School Services Department that took things like this miniature polar bear diorama to public schools (objects, photographs, and lantern slides went out on loan, too; you can see one of the trucks they went out on for delivery here).

This diorama has both a front and a top window for more natural light; Baione believes these little traveling dioramas were created in-house.

8. Uncle Cosmo Signage

When the museum was renovating to put in the new Hayden Planetarium, workers discovered a false wall. Behind it was an old sign, featuring a character called Uncle Cosmo, that invited visitors to learn what they would weigh on other planets in the “Your Weight on Other Worlds” exhibit. Today, visitors to the museum can still step on scales in the planetarium to find out what they’d weigh on “other worlds.”

9. Plaster Model of Chrysalis

The museum’s most famous naturalist and taxidermist, Carl Akeley, sculpted this plaster model of a man—who resembled Akeley—emerging from a gorilla. The resulting bronze statue, Chrysalis, was initially refused a place at the National Academy of Design (which had commissioned it) on the grounds that it lacked merit, according to the New York Times. Chrysalis was instead unveiled at the West Side Unitarian Church during its “Evolution Day” in April 1924. Akeley spoke at the unveiling, stating that “his purpose in creating the statue was not to depict humans as ascending from beasts, but rather to defend the gorilla and other animals against the charge that they were somehow ‘bestial.’” Akeley died just two years later in Africa working to save the mountain gorilla; the bronze statue can now be found at Chicago’s Field Museum.

10. Seed Pod

It’s not just glass and plaster models and old equipment in the Memorabilia Collection. There are also things like a monkey seed pod—again, in a custom-made box—which doesn’t smell very good. Baione guesses that the pod was once part of an exhibit, and since it was in good condition, it was retained and made its way to the Memorabilia Collection.

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