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5 Alternative Yard Games You Can Master This Summer

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Summertime is the season for outdoor activities—cookouts, picnics, camping and games. But instead of hauling out the badminton net or the croquet set, why not try something new this year? There are dozens of “backyard” games played around the world that are fun, easy to learn, and can be played by people of almost any athletic ability. Here are five alternatives to having the kids whack each other with croquet mallets after a match gets out of hand.

1. Bocce

Despite its reputation in many parts as a game played by old people and snobs, bocce is actually quite a fun game, and is great for the more competitive types. Though it’s traditionally played on a large, flat court (27.5 m/90 ft long and 4 m/13 ft wide), the game can easily be scaled down to fit within a smaller backyard, and the natural imperfections of the grass make it a fun (if a bit unpredictable) game to play at a cookout.

The goal of bocce is to land your team’s balls closest to a small target, whose location changes each round. While the official bocce rules are complex and long, and have provisions for nearly every situation, the basis of the game is simple. Two teams of 2 to 4 people assemble on opposite ends of a designated court, a small target ball (the “petanque” or “pallino”) is thrown over the halfway-point of the court by one team. Then, the bocce balls are tossed underhand, from the ends of the court, in attempt to get the closest to the petanque. Knocking other competitors’ balls out of the way is allowed—but in my own experience, when I’ve tried to do that, I’ve ended up giving the other team the win by knocking them closer to the target! 

2. Kubb

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Pronounced like “tube,” kubb has been gaining immense popularity in the Midwestern U.S. lately, and has long been played in the countries of Scandinavia. Its success has even led to a Kubb Kickstarter project blowing its funding goal out of the water! Known as “Viking Chess” and developed in Gotland, Sweden, kubb is best described as “a cross between bowling and horseshoes,” according to the Des Moines Kubb Club.

Kubb is played by two teams, on a rectangular field, with five pawns (“kubbs”) at the baselines on both ends, and a king in the center. The object of the game is to toss batons in an underhanded style (no “helicopter” throws) to knock over the opponents’ kubbs, and then, only after all the kubbs are knocked over, to topple the king in the center. If you knock over the king before the kubbs are toppled, you automatically lose! Considering that there are only six batons thrown each turn, and each team has five kubbs, it often takes strategy, luck, and a good aim in order to win.

3. Royal Quoits 

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If you’re a fan of horseshoes, or want to set up a safer and easier horseshoe-like game for the younger crowd, royal quoits is the way to go. Played with rope hoops and a set of five stakes with different point values, there are many variations on the game. The easiest version is often to simply set up the quoits set with a baseline to toss from, and have the players toss one ring per turn, and try to get above a pre-determined score. Since the stakes have different values, older players can have a bit of strategy involved, and since there’s more than one stake, the younger players have a much better chance of scoring – not to mention the chance to practice a bit of addition when it comes to their point values!

4. KanJam

KanJam is a relative newcomer to the land of backyard sports, but is a worthy contender for your time. Developed by two guys throwing Frisbees into old metal garbage cans in the mid-1990s, the game has since been refined, mass-produced, and played at parties, campgrounds, and cookouts throughout the world.

Played in teams of two, with two “goal” cans situated 50 feet apart,the object of the game is to get the Frisbees inside the portable can, either on your own, or by having your partner (situated behind the can) deflect towards the goal. No catching of the Frisbee by the partner is allowed, but they can deflect it in whatever manner they see fit. Most games are played to either 10 or 21 points. One point is awarded for discs deflected by the partner that hit the goal can, two points are awarded for getting the disc into the can on your own, and three points are awarded for having your partner deflect the disc into the can. If you trust your throw more than your partner, there’s an “instant win” slot on the front of the bin – the Golden Snitch of KanJam.

5. Ladder Golf

LadderGolf.com

This game is also called “hillbilly golf,” “Flingy-Pongy,” and at least a half dozen other names. Apocryphal origin stories tend to involve cowboys, dead snakes, and boredom while fixing fences, but the game seems to have been played in the Mississippi Basin longer than anywhere else. Origin aside, this backyard game has been gaining popularity at tailgating parties and picnics across the US, and is a simple enough setup that you can even make your own set at home.

Using one or two goal ladders, teams toss short bolas (string with weighted ends), and points are scored if your bola wraps around a ladder rung. Three points are awarded for the top rung, two points for the center, and one point for the bottom—scoring is done at the end of a round, so knocking an opponent’s bola off the ladder is fair game. An average tailgate game is played to an exact score of 21—if you score over 21, the number of points you would have scored is deducted from what you had at the beginning of the round!

This post originally appeared last year.

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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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