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Donna Yates

9 Strange and Wonderful Niche Blogs

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Donna Yates

When I posted the last list of niche blogs, a commenter expressed surprise that a Tumblr is a blog. Yes, Tumblr is a blogging platform, although it is also a social network. It’s the same with Twitter, although it is referred to as a “microblogging” platform because of the restriction on text. Is Facebook a blogging platform? Yes, if you choose to use it as one, although the public will only drop in to see what’s new if you post interesting subject matter on a regular basis. A blog is a website that is updated regularly like a diary, and in fact the word “blog” is short for “web log.” The updating with new material is what keeps us going back for more. Are you ready to explore some new and interesting single subject blogs?

1. Ask the Past

Ask the Past is a blog by Johns Hopkins history professor Elizabeth Archibald. She quotes advice from old books, often very old books, whether it’s good advice or not. Mostly not. Here are some other example posts:

How to Keep Your Cat, c. 1470
How to Mouse-Proof Your Cheese, 1649
How to Fart, 1530
How to Tell if Someone Is or Is Not Dead, c. 1380
How to Sober Up, 1628

If you start reading at the home page, you may be busy all day.

2. Small Town Noir

The blog Small Town Noir tells the stories of people who were arrested in New Castle, Pennsylvania, between 1930 and 1960. Diarmid Mogg became interested in the town and its people when he found some mugshots on eBay, and researched the stories of those people in the local newspaper archives -not just their crime, but their entire lives as well as they can be reconstructed.

The men and women in these mug shots are nobody special, but they saw things that none of us will ever see. They were all arrested in New Castle, a small town in western Pennsylvania, right over by the Ohio border. It was once one of the most industrially productive cities in America, but all that’s gone now.

Although Mogg is in Scotland, he continues to collect and research the mugshots that the New Castle police threw out some time around 1990. The stories are sparse but fascinating, and the blog as a whole serves to chronicle the history of a declining American town and the everyday people who lived and died there. 

The mugshot above is of John Saul, who was arrested in 1957 for disorderly conduct. But the real story came later, when he got involved with holding a woman against her will for the purpose of prostitution, a crime that involved some of the town’s notable politicians.

3. WTF Renaissance

“Like most Fashion Week attendees, Chris and Uma judged shows on the quality of their gift bags.”

The Twitter feed WTF Renaissance gives modern captions to Renaissance and other classic paintings, or, more often, details found in Renaissance paintings. You’re sure to find something in there to make you smile.

4. Illustrated Twitter Typos

It’s hard to get every letter right when you’re Tweeting from a phone. For some people, even large keyboard keys and small words will trip you up. So it was inevitable that a site dedicated to Twitter typos would come along. Illustrated Twitter Typos not only showcases the funniest typos, but shows the “Freudian typos” illustrated. Misspellings are included as well as typos, as long as they’re funny, and indeed misspellings make up the majority of funny entries. The results are unintented puns.

5. Pop Sonnets

Pop Sonnets takes modern, familiar songs and renders them into Shakespearean language. That’s all, but it’s certainly enough to make you laugh, particularly if your favorite song is there. It might well be: the songs posted so far range from “I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor to “Rude” by Magic! If not, you can suggest a song.

6. Real Anime Food

Have you ever had a hankering to try out the recipes for dishes people eat on TV? If you’re an anime fan, Real Anime Food can help! The unnamed blogger is an anime fan and amateur cook. About Sukuyo’s Mystery Croquettes (from the show Kill la Kill), she says:

Sorry it took so long to post this. This whole life thing isnt easy! Anyway I made my version of mystery croquettes! They are made kind of cheaply too because the Mankanshoku’s werent rich. Making a little cheap food go far would be important to a family on a tight budget!! I basically grabbed what I had around my kitchen cut it all up really tiny and mixed with potatoes just like Sukuyo states is her trick! If you want a recipe for meat croquettes I have one here.

That’s followed by the recipe and directions illustrated by photographs. There are nine pages of recipes so far.

7. Lego Academics

“The @LegoAcademics overlooked one somewhat improbable 'risk' on their ethics approval form.”

Stockholm scientist Ellen Kooijman (Alatariel Elensar) designed a LEGO set featuring women scientists. It was picked up and manufactured by the LEGO company, and Donna Yates, an American archaeologist in Glasgow, Scotland, bought one of the first Research Institute sets as soon as they went on sale -plus a few extra pieces for creativity’s sake. She recreates scenes from her own life in archaeology and academia and posts them to her new Twitter account, Lego Academics. It has become a hit among scientists and academics who relate to her LEGO scenes.

The image above incorporates the T. rex fossil included in the set. Other vignettes deal with drinking as stress relief, dealing with budgets, and a dinosaur fossil that wants to be involved in research. Yates says she’s been a LEGO fan since childhood, and will continue to post such scenes “as long as it’s funny.”

8. Ryan Gosling Disneyland Cats

Four years ago, there was a spate of new blogs featuring Photoshopped images of unrelated topics spawned by Selleck Waterfall Sandwich, which is now defunct, as are most of the spinoff blogs. Mental_floss reader shavenwarthog told us his favorite was Bea Arthur Mountains Pizza, which still has three pages of images. You can also still check out the archives of Tony Danza Space Pretzel, too. But the longest-lived of these image blogs is Ryan Gosling Disneyland Cats, which is still being updated, although infrequently, in 2014. It must be the subject matter.

9. It's Like They Know Us

"I am getting so much work done. Toddlers are easy."

Advertising and stock photos are an endless source of comedy, because they show an idealized illustration of the perfect life and whatever it is they are trying to sell. One blogger saw how ridiculous the depictions of parenthood, pregnancy, and particularly breastfeeding are, and thought up snarky captions. The result is the new blog It’s Like They Know Us. Anyone who has ever been around a child can relate.

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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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]