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Sam Howzit

15 Incredibly Specific Special Collections Libraries

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Sam Howzit

Special collections libraries are a strange and wonderful world, full of odd collections and even odder researchers. We chose a handful of our favorites.

1. The Grolier Club

This private society for bibliophiles on Manhattan’s Upper East Side features an entire library of books about books. Featuring topics ranging from printing techniques to histories of the book to examples of especially fine bindings, this library is a bibliophile’s playground.

2. The Browne Popular Culture Library

This special collections library at Bowling Green State University in Ohio is something of a legend among librarians. Their collections include over 10,000 comic books and graphic novels, an array of materials related to the Miss America pageant, a Pokemon collection, Star Trek memorabilia, and a collection of vintage paperbacks.

3. The Marion Nestle Food Studies Collection

This culinary history collection at NYU’s Fales Library includes many gems, including the 3500-volume library of cookbooks from Gourmet magazine.

4. The Lilly Library

Indiana University’s amazing special collections facility in Bloomington has 16,000 miniature books, along with a huge collection of puzzles and many other oddities. Their exhibits are also top notch; it’s worth a visit if you’re passing through Indiana.

5. The Folger Shakespeare Library

Established in 1932, the Folger is an impressive research institution in Washington, D.C. that collects materials related to Shakespeare and the early modern period.

6. Barnard Zine Library

Barnard College is a liberal arts college for women, so it’s no surprise that their zine collection focuses on zines written by women. They also make a special effort to collect zines by women of color.

7. DC Punk Archive

An archive about punk music is pretty specific—but what about an entire archive about the punk scene in Washington, D.C.? It’s in the works under the auspices of the D.C. Public Library.

8. The Peace Collection

Swarthmore College, in the Philadelphia suburbs, hosts this collection dedicated to peace activism and related materials. They have a great collection of political buttons, among other things. Their collections complement the Quaker-related collections of the Friends Historical Library, which is also housed at Swarthmore.

9. The Center for Southwest Research

Many special collections libraries are organized by region, like the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico. The Center collects materials on the Southwestern United States and Latin America, and it’s located in Albuquerque.

10. Harry Ransom Center

Based at the University of Texas at Austin, the Harry Ransom Center collections of cultural materials include a truly impressive array of manuscripts and works-in-progress by some of the world’s greatest writers and artists to help provide insight into the creative process.

11. Presbyterian Historical Society

Entire collections dealing with a religious group are not uncommon. This library in Center City Philadelphia documents the history of the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the largest Protestant denominations in the United States.

12. Juilliard Library and Archives

Many large universities with music departments have dedicated music libraries, but Juilliard is arguably the best-known music and performing arts institution in the country. The library includes scores, sound recordings, and books on music, dance and drama.

13. Human Sexuality Collection

The Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell University documents sexual history, especially lesbian and gay history and the history of pornography. The collection includes published and unpublished materials in the form of written works, photographs, video, and oral histories.

14. Walt Disney Archives

Many large corporations maintain their own archives to document and celebrate their company history. Materials from the Walt Disney Archives are frequently exhibited to the public in southern California and beyond.

15. National Museum of Natural History Library

It’s hard to pick just one of the Smithsonian’s libraries, but this one contains a plethora of cool science-related collections, from zoology to mineralogy to volcanology. The library collections support research on the natural history specimens maintained by the museum, but they’re also open to outside researchers.

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technology
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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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