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Make Your Own Easter Basket Treats!

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It's very easy to pick up traditional Easter candies at your local store, but it's so much more fun to make them from scratch! Any of these projects can be an enjoyable and educational experience for kids, and homemade treats are a perfectly personal gift. And they're tasty, too.

1. Peeps

Yes, you can make your own marshmallow Peeps. It's just a matter of decorating your homemade marshmallows. Kathleen at Twig & Thistle takes it from there. Add your color before the marshmallow sets. Cut them out with cookie cutters, dampen slightly, and roll in colored sugar. Don't forget little candies for the eyes! An alternate method from Serious Eats uses a whipped marshmallow mixture that you can squeeze into the classic Peep chick shape. It takes a steady hand and a little practice.

2. Cadbury Creme Eggs

Cadbury eggs seem complicated, with a yolk and white that looks like a chicken egg but tastes like heaven. However, this recipe from Instructables breaks it down into steps that you can accomplish. The yellow and white filling are the same thick fondant you can mold with your hands. The chocolate covering is the delicate part, and even if the result is less-than-picturesque, it will taste delicious.

3. Giant Cadbury Creme Egg

Once you've conquered the Cadbury Creme Egg, you may as well make the leap to the giant Cadbury egg. The process requires more ingredients and a bigger mold, but the rewards will be greater as well. The guys who made this 8-inch tall egg also made their own foil wrapper!

4. Chocolate Bunny

Making a chocolate rabbit is just a matter of following instructions for melting chocolate and using a bunny mold. You can make your bunny solid, or let the chocolate cool enough to be a little stiff, then paint the inside of the mold with a even layer to make a hollow bunny, like the chefs in the video. Chocolate Easter eggs are made the same way.

5. Whoppers

Many chocolate Easter eggs are made of malted milk balls, or what we know by the name brand of Whoppers. The simple part of making them at home is mixing chocolate with malted milk powder and rolling into balls. Dipping them in chocolate afterward is kind of tricky, but it's a skill worth practicing. The reviews of the recipe say these are better than Whoppers.

6. Tootsie Rolls

Traditional Tootsie Rolls are relatively inexpensive and plentiful, so you won't save any money by making your own. But the homemade versions are tasty and softer than the store-bought kind. Allrecipes has an extremely easy version, (pictured) with a list of ingredients and simple instructions: "Mix all ingredients together. Knead like you would for bread. Roll into rope shapes and cut into desired lengths." Right, no cooking at all! A slightly more complex recipe that does involve a bit of cooking yields rolls very close in texture to the original.

7. Pop Rocks

I really wanted to find a recipe for homemade jelly beans to complete the traditional Easter basket, but found nothing that really approximated the jelly beans we know and love. However, we can substitute Pop Rocks, because we have a recipe! These directions at Instructables yield a candy that relies on citric acid and baking soda to create the fizzy sensation on your tongue. And don't forget your hammer!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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