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8 Librarians Who Lend Out More Than Books

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Libraries would be nothing without the librarians who run them. Most of us know them as the people who check out our books or help us navigate the Dewey Decimal System, but not all librarians are limited to working with the printed word. Whether they’re lending out ties or larger-than-life puppets, these are the heroic men and women behind some of the world’s most unique library collections.

1. LAUREN COMITO // THE TIE-BRARY

Libraries offer tremendous resources to people searching for employment, but that could all be for nothing without a proper interview outfit to wear. In Queens, New York, library members can check out a tie with interview tips and tie-tying instructions printed inside the box it comes in. Queens librarian Lauren Comito launched the “tie-brary” as one of her many initiatives dedicated to providing services to the borough’s homeless population. After founding WhereinQueens.org, a website that directs users to career services and other resources in the area, she realized that some of her patrons didn’t own a tie or even know they should be wearing one to interviews. She met this need by building the racks to hold a library of ties herself.

2. DAYNA BOYER // THE KITCHEN LIBRARY

After borrowing a cookbook from a public library in Toronto, citizens can stop by the city’s Kitchen Library and check out the equipment they need to make the recipes. Dayna Boyer (second from left above) was volunteering at the Toronto Tool Library when she was inspired to start a similar service that specialized in lending out cooking supplies rather than power tools. As an avid cook and baker herself, she knew how difficult it was to maintain a fully-equipped kitchen in a cramped, city apartment. Today the library’s inventory includes 75 less-than-essential kitchen tools, including a crepe maker, a chocolate fountain, a meat slicer, and a pierogi press. Members can check out items for one week at a time for a fee of $9 a month—just don’t forget to wash everything before bringing it back.

3. BARBARY SANDERSON // GUITAR LENDING COLLECTION

In addition to books, members of the Licking County Library in Ohio have the option to take a musical instrument home with them. The Guitar Lending Collection was the brainchild of Barbary Sanderson, a teen services assistant at the library. A guitarist herself, she received inspiration for the concept while browsing through a guitar shop in town. The library’s director was on board with the idea, and Sanderson immediately started reaching out to local businesses and building the collection. In addition to acoustic and electric guitars, Licking County Library members can check out banjos, mandolins, and ukuleles for four weeks at a time.

4. JILL YOUNGS // LIBRARYFARM

Looking for a way to use the land in front of their building, the Northern Onondaga Public Library Cicero, New York eventually decided to share it with the community. LibraryFarm aims to promote organic farming practices by lending out plots of land to garden members. Jill Youngs, the library branch manager, is also in charge of managing the property’s 58 4-by-8 foot land plots and 900 square feet of pantry gardens. She told Central New York Community Foundation News, "It’s very organic, in both senses of the word." Since it launched over five years ago, LibraryFarm has been the site of everything from a community herb garden to an "insect hotel" constructed by a junior gardeners club.

5. THERESA LINNIHAN // PUPPET COLLECTION

Interested in borrowing a 20-foot-tall puppet to spice up your next event? Puppet librarian Theresa Linnihan maintains a collection of over 100 semi-retired giant puppets that can be lent out for plays, parties, parades, and films. For years, the Puppet Free Lending Library could be found beneath the arch in Grand Army Plaza outside of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. A water leak forced Linnihan to relocate her operation to Brooklyn College in 2008, and today both aspiring and seasoned puppeteers are free to check out materials from the library by appointment.

6. CATALINA ACHIM // LENDING LIBRARY OF SCIENCE KITS

For kids, science equipment can mean the difference between a successful learning experience and a forgettable one. Science kit lending libraries offer a way for educators to get exciting materials into the hands of their students regardless of the limitations of their budgets. Catalina Achim, a chemistry professor at Carnegie Mellon, helped found the Lending Library of Science Classroom Kits for teachers throughout the Pittsburgh public school system to borrow from for free. Pre-assembled kits available for checkout include "Chemistry of Color: Pigments in Art," "Kitchen Chemistry: Edible Emulsions," and "Origami Geometry." Local classes can request a science kit online.

7. CHRIS HEUBERGER // BROOKLYN ART LIBRARY

Franklin Heijnen via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0 

The Brooklyn Art Library doesn’t lend out typical books. Instead of stories, these books contain sketches by artists from around the world. In 2012, head librarian Chris Heuberger told the Library as Incubator Project the art library was home to "22,000 sketchbooks from 130 countries and all 50 states." For a small fee, anyone can sign up to fill a blank notebook of their own and submit it to be part of the library’s vast collection. Sketchbooks are cataloged under categories like format, mood, and material as well as random themes like "Dirigibles and Submersibles" and "Things Found on Restaurant Napkins." And just like at a regular library, all the books are available to borrow for free after signing up for a library card. The Brooklyn Art Library is closed for the time being but will reopen later this spring in a new location in the borough's Williamsburg neighborhood.

8. DAVID HORNE // RCA TELESCOPE LIBRARY

It’s not too unusual for traditional libraries to have a few telescopes available to check out, but Rose City Astronomers is the place to go if you're serious about your stargazing. According to official telescope librarian David Horne, members are allowed to borrow telescopes, eyepieces, and astronomical binoculars from the library free of charge. Some of the notable items in their collection include solar telescopes designed for viewing activity on the sun and Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes capable of tracking objects as they move across the sky. Much of the equipment requires some basic astronomy knowledge to operate, but luckily the RCA also hosts telescope workshops and star parties on a regular basis.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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