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9 Niche Blogs to Brighten Your Winter

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January takes forever to get through. The most unpleasant weather of the year comes in January and February, but at least February is short and full of holidays. If you’re having a little trouble keeping your spirits up, try some of these incredibly focused and sometimes bizarre blogs that will open a door to a new subject for you.

1. Hot People on Jeopardy!

I may be weird, but when I watch the game show Jeopardy! (which I do infrequently) I consider it a challenge to see how I stack up against the contestants -and occasionally as an opportunity to show off in front of my kids. But there are people who watch the show to admire the contestants for their looks. The blog Hot People on ‘Jeopardy!’ records the more attractive contests for sharing, discussion, and posterity. But no matter who the contestants are, or how hot they are, fans of the show and the blog reserve their greatest admiration for host Alex Trebek.

2. Star Trek Fact Check

Science fiction fans of all kinds love to compare their knowledge of trivia and history regarding their favorite universe, and having a story that few others know brings status among geeks. As these stories are passed around, they tend to grow and change, even if they were born of truth. The Star Trek universe is full of such stories, as it has been around for almost 50 years. The blog Star Trek Fact Check was born to unearth the truth behind the production of Star Trek: The Original Series. However, the other, later Star Trek TV series are often in consideration as well. In a recent post, the author conducts an epic deconstruction of a magazine issue devoted to Star Trek history. A sample:

Claim: It wasn't until the first episode of the second season, "The Trouble with Tribbles," that the [Klingon] race began to emerge as the perfect foil to Kirk and Co. (Page 76)

Verdict: False. The Klingons, established in season one's "Errand of Mercy," first re-appeared in season two's "Friday's Child," the third episode produced for the second season and the eleventh to air. The Klingons actually make their third appearance on Star Trek in "The Trouble with Tribbles," which was the fifteenth episode aired during season two, and the thirteenth produced. As for the first episode of the second season, "Amok Time" was the first episode to be aired in season two, and "Catspaw" was the first produced.

Star Trek Fact Check goes where no man has gone before in the search for the truth. This blog could keep you busy for weeks.

3. NYC 1981

The blog NYC, 1981 focuses only on the city of New York, and only on the year 1981. There is no dearth of material- after all, the city’s newspapers were filled every day. The blog was set up to promote the movie A Most Violent Year. The fact that it’s a promotional blog doesn’t make it any less interesting, as the subject matter could well stand on its own.

New York City, 1981. It is a time that contributed massively to culture as we know it today, but a place where you would probably not want to raise your children. Pulsing with chaotic energy and apparent lawlessness, the city was in a fragile state with a total of 637,451 felonies committed in 12 short months. It was an era where the line between good and evil often seemed blurred, and an individual’s success was a testament to their persistence. But there were fissures of creativity and light in the city’s asphalt crust, and remarkable moments in cultural history happened on the regular.

It was the year that Fort Apache, The Bronx was filmed amid protests against the production, the city’s sanitation department went on strike in December, and hip-hop music was in its infancy. There’s also retro media, profiles of neighborhoods, and plenty of graffiti.

4. Cemetery Travel

The web is full of travel blogs, but how many focus on graveyards? Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World is your go-to site for destination cemeteries. Or maybe you already have a destination, and need to fill out your tourism schedule. Honestly, many cities have cemetery tours, because those places are part of their history, and one area that usually isn’t in danger of destruction or renovation. And many of them are breathtakingly beautiful. You could learn a lot from perusing this blog.

5. Profanity

Photograph by Flickr user Chris Hardie.

Vito Tartamella keeps an Italian blog called Parolacce. In English, that’s Profanity, and yes, it’s all about swearing and bad language. We are lucky it’s available in several languages (the translation button is to the right). You might want to wait until you are in the privacy of your home before reading it.

6. Abandoned CDs

Abandoned CDs is a British blog that is exactly what it says on the tin. Each entry is a photograph of a discarded CD, along with information on the date and place it was found, plus a little research on its contents. That’s all.

7. Drunk J. Crew

Have you ever noticed that the models in the J. Crew catalog look drunk? I haven’t either, as I don’t shop for clothing until I have no choice. But ethics professor Jen Ellison noticed, and with a few captions that you’ve heard before from drunk friends, created the blog Drunk J. Crew. The blog is fairly new, but I can see it lasting a while because there’s got to be a lot of raw material available. And it became a hit so fast that people started passing off Ellison’s work as their own. There’s plenty to laugh at in the single pictures, the photo essays, and even an occasional video

8. The Worst Cat

Here’s a single-subject blog that won’t tax your time. The Worst Cat has many pictures of this “wet cat,” which is yes, clearly a baby hippopotamus, but let’s not ruin the joke for the author.

This is the best cat if you like your cats to be really sweaty and footballshaped and disgusting

The testimonials at the bottom of the endless scroll get to the heart of the matter.

9. I Quant NY

If the first entry on New York City in this list appealed to a sense of nostalgia, the second one will appeal to mathematicians and graph geeks. I Quant NY is where statistics meets the Big Apple. There are many sources for the data that goes into this blog, resulting in posts about everything from the most-blocked driveways to how close the nearest Starbucks is to getting the best deal on a Metrocard.

See more niche blogs in our previous posts.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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