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A New Supply of Oddly Specific Niche Blogs

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It’s easier than ever to create a brand-new blog when you think you have a good subject. But it’s difficult to keep a narrow-focus, single subject blog going for any length of time. For every blog that makes these lists, I’ve seen a dozen that faded away after a half-dozen posts -or even fewer! You must have real dedication to your subject to make them work, and it shows in these eight niche blogs you might enjoy.

1. Sad Brazilians

When Germany eliminated the home team from the World Cup earlier this month, the world’s journalists, plus plenty of fans with cameras, were there to record the despair. The blog Sad Brazilians was soon set up to chronicle the horrific reactions to the catastrophe. I don’t know how much longer it will be updated, so you may as well enjoy the pictures while they last.

2. A Daily Pickup Line

Alyssa Duhe has a single subject webcomic. A Daily Pickup Line delivers what it promises, a different pickup line each day, illustrated, for everyone from sports fans to sci-fi geeks. If there’s one you really like, you might be able to buy it in her Etsy shop, Little Lady Design.

3. Tilda Stardust

The blog Tilda Stardust has the tagline “Dedicated to the belief that Tilda and Bowie are one person.” That’s Scottish model and actress Tilda Swinton and singer David Bowie, friends who do resemble each other. Side-by-side comparisons are the bulk of the blog's content. Asked about the rumor, Swinton said she was sworn to silence. But the photos continue.

4. Beautiful East African Brides

The countries of East Africa are quite diverse, in cultures, customs, religions, and styles, so there’s a lot of variety in the blog Beautiful East African Brides. The one thing these picture posts have in common is that they are of East African weddings, and they are beautiful. Shown here is Princess Ruth Komuntale of Toro/Uganda at her wedding.

5. Animals Sitting on Capybaras

Photograph by Flickr user frank wouters.

The capybara is the largest species of rodent, native to South America. People find them cute, and they are apparently attractive to other animals. Animals Sitting on Capybaras is a photo blog that documents the many, many photographs of birds, monkeys, turtles, rats, and other animals sitting on capybaras. The blog has even inspired fan art.

6. WTF Visualizations

WTF Visualizations is a blog that archives charts and graphs that make no sense. Oh yeah, they may be pretty, or shall we say, "visually appealing," but they don't communicate the information in any coherent way. Each has actually appeared in news media or online. Sometimes the math doesn’t add up, or the layout is confusing, but in many cases, the type of chart is not the one that should be used for those particular statistics. What, exactly, is the line in the line chart above supposed to represent?

7. It’s Better With Batman

Reid Parker is of the opinion that any movie, TV show, video game, artwork, or other bit of pop culture would be improved with the addition of Batman. To prove it, he started the blog It’s Better with Batman, and filled it with scenes that show how right he is.

8. House LEGO

The Tumblr blog House LEGO has LEGO recreations of scenes from the TV show Game of Thrones. The blog began a year ago with mostly portraits of the characters in LEGO minifigs, but this year the LEGO creations made a giant leap into action scenes, with much more detail, recapping each episode. The gore is not quite as realistic in LEGO bricks and minifigs, but the attention to detail is impressive, and anyone who follows the show will recall the scenes easily. Since the season has ended, the blog is down to a couple of new posts a week, with a “throwback” (repost) on Thursdays and a new and ever-more-detailed scene unveiled each Sunday. You can even request your favorite scene!

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]