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11 Things You No Longer See on Playgrounds

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If it seems like today’s kids have gotten “softer” than we ever were in our youth, perhaps it’s because playgrounds have gotten softer as well. Literally. Blacktop has been replaced by wood mulch, sand, and rubber chips. And there are governmental organizations that actually oversee such precise details as “Is playground-quality sand being used? Is there any lead content in the recycled rubber?”

Thanks to state laws and personal injury lawyers, the landscape of the typical playground has changed a lot over the years, making it a safer and more “educationally interactive” environment. On the other hand, maybe those rough-and-tumble recreation areas of yesteryear served as an early life lesson that the world was a harsh and unforgiving place. A place where Mom’s only admonition was “If you fall and break your neck, don’t come crying to me!” If you remember proudly displaying your stitches or plaster cast as a badge of honor after suffering a fall from the monkey bars, then you may also remember playing on some of this other equipment that is slowly disappearing from our public playscapes. (Sure, you might see versions of these things on playgrounds, but let's face it—they don't make them like they used to.)

1. Merry-Go-Round

The object here was to get the thing spinning so fast that kids began flying off, one by one. The last one holding on for dear life was the “winner.” And to really test your mettle, you didn’t sit placidly in one of the “slots”—you stood up, or climbed astride the bars, or assumed some other death-defying position.

2. Teeter-Totters

Whether you call them see-saws or teeter-totters, they just don’t make ‘em like they used to. The ones at my elementary school and neighborhood park were wooden, with splinters and chipped paint. They were also pretty tall, and installed on blacktop. A girl in my second grade class broke her collarbone when her fellow teeterer pulled the old “I’ll get off of my side while you’re up in the air” trick.

3. Metal Slides

Those towering metal slides of yesteryear are being replaced with molded plastic models, and in order to conform to Consumer Product Safety Commission standards, the height and slope of those slides are far more restrictive. There was nothing quite like scooting down a metal slide in a skirt or pair of shorts after it had been baking in the hot sun all day. The sharp metal edges sometimes nicked you in a tender area when the surface seams began to separate, and since there were virtually no protective side rails, it wasn’t too difficult to accidentally flip over the side on your way down (say, if the heel of your sneaker accidentally caught and tossed you like a car skidding on the ice). Savvy kids brought a length of wax paper with them from home to sit on for extra-fast descents.

4. Witch’s Hat

Yet another piece of equipment that taught us Fun With G-Forces. Kids gathered around the outside of the ring and grasped it. Then they ran around and around, faster and faster, until the thing spun so fast your body was lifted off of the ground and you were (hopefully) flying almost horizontally. It was all good, clean fun—until someone barfed.

5. Metal or Wooden Swings


Swing seats today must be made of vandal-proof rubber or some similar protectively coated material. It’s hard to find those thick steel or wooden seats that chipped many a tooth when they were thrown just so. The chains no longer have open S loops, and are quite often coated in vinyl … no more going home with orange palms from grasping rusty chains. And the swingsets aren’t nearly as tall, which takes a lot of the fun out of jumping from the seat when you’re at the highest point in your arc.

6. Giant Stride

Preservation in Pink

Similar to the Witch’s Hat, but with individual hanging pieces, so that the slower kids got rammed into, or perhaps smashed into, the center pole.

7. Horizontal Ladder/Monkey Bars


At my school the horizontal ladder was made of metal and perched over asphalt. Blistered hands were the natural result of crossing, especially in warm weather. When the safety monitor wasn’t looking, we engaged in “dog fights”—one person started from each end, met near the middle, and kicked and flailed their feet, trying to knock each other off the bars.

8. Geodesic Dome


Truly adventurous kids climbed on the inside of this structure, so that they were upside-down at the top, then continued that way to end up head-first on the other side. And when the bell rang to signal the end of recess, if you happened to be on or near the top, you saved time by simply jumping down to the ground. Because only wussies bothered to carefully climb down when time was of the essence.

8. Tetherball


Thanks to the danger of getting smacked in the face, plus the steady stream of broken/jammed fingers as a result of kids hitting the pole instead of the ball, this game is slowly becoming extinct on public playgrounds.

10. Still Rings


Metal rings hanging on long chains are also now considered a safety hazard. Maybe that’s partly because kids used to do things like sit on top of the ring and swing and bash into one another, or hang upside down from their feet.

11. Animal Springers


Or whatever they’re properly called. Today they’re all lightweight plastic with coated springs. But the real deal was made of solid steel, as was the coil beneath it. Heavy duty fun for all!

Please share your fondest playground memories:  broken bones, sprained fingers and all!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]