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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 Blacktop has been replaced by wood mulch, sand, and rubber chips.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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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
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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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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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