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Courtesy of Barbara H. Hartsfield

10 Weird and Wonderful Personal Collections

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Courtesy of Barbara H. Hartsfield

One way to break a Guinness World Record is by collecting something no one else wants. Just make sure you don’t settle on back scratchers, umbrella sleeves, or fossilized poop as your collectible of choice—those items (and more) already make up some of the most unique personal collections on earth.

1. MINIATURE CHAIRS

Shopping for pint-sized chairs began as a weekend hobby for Barbara Hartsfield, and after maintaining the habit for 10 years, she had built up a collection of 3000 of the miniatures by 2008. Today, tiny furniture enthusiasts can find chairs in bottles, bird feeder chairs, and chairs made from toothpicks and clothespins at her Stone Mountain, Georgia museum.

2. DALEKS

Thinking?

Rob Hull // Flickr

You wouldn’t be faulted for pegging someone who owns hundreds of Daleks as a fan of Doctor Who, but Rob Hull of Doncaster, England isn’t interested in the show—he only has eyes for the Doctor’s cyborg nemeses. His obsession traces back to the day his mother refused to buy him a Dalek toy he saw in a store as a child. He vowed to buy his own one day, and at age 29, he purchased his first model. In 2011, Hull earned a Guinness World Record for amassing 571 Daleks, ranging in size from tabletop knick-knacks to a 6-foot replica. One person who wasn’t thrilled about the achievement was his wife. According to The Telegraph, she said, ''I hate the bloody things and I've got a feeling this is only going to encourage him.''

3. UMBRELLA SLEEVES

Nancy Hoffman may very well be the only umbrella sleeve collector on earth, but that doesn’t make her achievement any less impressive. Guinness World Records recognized her collection of 730 umbrella sleeves as the largest in the world in 2012. Since 1996, Hoffman’s Maine home has been open to the public as a museum. As visitors peruse umbrellas from 50 different countries, Hoffman treats them to a live accordion rendition of “Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella.”

4. BURGER PARAPHERNALIA

Like many people, Harry Sperl likes hamburgers. But this Daytona Beach, Florida resident takes his passion beyond ordering the occasional burger at a drive-thru—he’s spent the past 26 years filling his home with at least 3724 burger-related items.

Nicknamed “Hamburger Harry,” Sperl started his collection as a way to sell a vintage drive-in tray he owned. He purchased a few plastic hamburgers to use as props when photographing the collector’s item. From there, he purchased more burger merchandise for fun and started receiving them as gifts from friends and fans, who he calls his “hamburger helpers.” Today, the Guinness World Record holder owns everything from a hamburger waterbed to a customized burger Harley Davidson. He eventually hopes to open a museum in the shape of a double bacon cheeseburger.

5. DINOSAUR TOYS

Randy Knol

Randy Knol’s epic dinosaur collection would make many 5-year-olds jealous. He first started collecting the toys after receiving a Flintstones playset for Christmas in the 1960s. Today, he estimates he has “probably about five or six thousand” dinosaur figures scattered in bags, boxes, and Tupperware containers around his house. His collection has yet to be verified by the Guinness World Records committee, but there's a good chance his is the largest. He told Smithsonian, “I knew a couple of collectors who had more but they're all dead now.”

6. DO NOT DISTURB SIGNS

Some people who like to travel buy T-shirts, snow globes, or key chains to remember the places they’ve been. Rainer Weichert enjoys bringing back “Do Not Disturb” signs to his home in Germany instead. As of 2014, his record-breaking collection included at least 11,570 signs gathered from hotels, cruise ships, and airplanes in 188 countries. A couple of his more valuable items are a sign from the 1936 Olympic Village in Berlin and a 106-year-old sign from the General Brock Hotel in Canada.

7. BACK SCRATCHERS

Manfred Rothstein

A trip to Manfred S. Rothstein’s dermatology clinic in Fayetteville, North Carolina includes a free look at the world’s largest back scratcher collection. The doctor owns more than 800 of the handy tools, hundreds of which are displayed in cabinets in the examination rooms and hallway of his practice. The spread includes one back scratcher with an alligator foot, another made from buffalo ribs, and three electric models from the early 1900s.

8. FAST FOOD TOYS

Percival Lugue

Growing up in the Philippines, Percival R. Lugue treated his toys with a level of care beyond his years; it was a quality he never grew out of. Today he owns more fast food restaurant toys than anyone else on earth with over 14,500 in his possession. After earning the distinction from Guinness World Records in 2014, Lugue hasn’t slowed down. He told Lucky Peach that he eventually hopes “to collect all the fast-food toys that exist.” A 1999 Inspector Gadget toy from McDonald’s and a 1987 Popeye and Friends set from the Filipino chain Jollibee are two of his most prized pieces.

9. FOSSILIZED POOP

George Frandsen is basically the Indiana Jones of poop. He’s gotten his hands on 1277 samples of coprolite (the scientific name for fossilized feces). His collection was certified as a world record-breaker in August 2016, and in October, he lent it to the South Florida Museum for a year-long exhibition. Visitors to the museum can feast their eyes on coprolite from eight different countries, including a 4 pound, 3.5 ounce prehistoric crocodile turd affectionately named “Precious.”

10. TRAFFIC CONES

Think of the mayhem you could cause with 500 traffic cones. Fortunately, UK resident David Morgan doesn’t use his collection for nefarious purposes. His obsession began while working for Oxford Plastic Systems, the world's largest producer of traffic cones. In 1986, a rival manufacturer claimed that Oxford had copied one of their designs, so Morgan set off searching for a cone to prove the design wasn’t new. The incident sparked a lifelong passion for the product. Despite owning hundreds of them, Morgan told Somerset Live he would never consider stealing one “as they are a safety product."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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© Nintendo
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Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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