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15 Summer Projects and Activities There's Still Time For

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1. Gardening

If you haven’t planted your autumn crops yet, don’t worry—there's still time! Plant carrots, kale, turnips, squash, and beets for a late fall harvest. The idea is to find plants that mature quickly in the cool season, so you can have them before the winter weather hits. If you have a greenhouse, you have even more options.

2. Invite Over Some Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are always an adorable delight to have in your backyard. If you want some tiny visitors of your own, just offer them their favorite food. Bird feeders can be made with spare bottles, jars, or even Frisbees. Fill your receptacle of choice with sugar water and add a straw for easy access. Hang your new creation on a nearby tree with wire. You can even decorate the feeder with bright colors to attract the birds.

3. Make a shadow box

Shadow boxes are a great way to display souvenirs from your last summer vacation. First, decide on a theme or vacation to draw inspiration from. Next, add shells, tickets, photos, buttons, or anything else you can think of to your box. Once you’re done, you can mount it on your wall and guests can learn about your last voyage without the lengthy slideshow.

4. Learn standup paddleboarding

If you want to try a new ocean sport while the weather is still warm, check out standup paddleboarding. The sport offers a fun, but relaxing activity that can be done in any body of water. The only gear you need to get started is a paddle and a board (although a flotation device and sunscreen are strongly recommended as well). Once you get up on your board, keep your knees bent, toes forward and your back straight. Stroke four or five times on one side and then switch to the other, if you want to stay in a straight line. Once you get moving, it will be easier to stay balanced. The sport is great exercise without being too strenuous.

5. Start a compost

Composting is an environmentally conscious way to create natural fertilizer. Start with flat ground and a basic material like wood to fence the area in. Lay some hay at the bottom of the area, then fill it with material like food scraps, cardboard, dryer lint, and other perishables. Egg shells, fruits, and vegetables are acceptable, but it's best to avoid meat and bones because they will attract unwanted guests. If you want to keep flies way from your new compost, use clipped grass to cover any new rinds or shells. And since fall is fast approaching, remember you can add leaves to your compost as well.

6. Have a picnic

Summer is the perfect time to dine outdoors—and if you go late enough, fireflies will even provide free entertainment! Bring a shower curtain to put under your picnic blanket in case the grass is wet. Mason jars make great containers for salads, vegetables, and other snacks. For an impromptu speaker, try putting your phone into a plastic cup to amplify the sound.

7. Host your own outdoor movie

All you need is a white sheet and projector to make the movie magic happen. Add some string lights and pop your own popcorn to add to that drive-in feel.

8. Make creative ice pops

Summer flavors are fresh and sweet. Experiment by mixing lots of new ingredients, like summer fruits and flowers. Hibiscus, lavender, and rose make great tasting popsicles, and you can add the actual petals for aesthetically beautiful treats. If you want something a little different, try adding yogurt or chocolate hazelnut spread for a creamier dessert. If you want to get really crazy, add gummy bears or other candy to the mix.

9. Organize a game with your friends

Find a day when all your friends are free and plan your favorite game. Some options include: kickball, soccer, SPUD, capture the flag, or a water balloon fight. All of these games require limited equipment so you don’t have to worry about setup or planning before you play. If you want to make it really serious, pick up some blank t-shirts and fabric markers to make team uniforms.

10. Make giant bubbles

All you need are two wooden dowels, string, and a bubble solution. Tie two pieces of string to connect the sticks and create a square of negative space. Just hold the dowels parallel and dip your bubble solution. If you want to make your own bubbles, mix glycerine, baking soda, corn starch and dishwashing soap with water. Stir until everything is dissolved, and then let sit for an hour. Now you have your own bubble mix and wand for giant bubbles.

11. Press Flowers

Grab flowers from your garden and press them to preserve their beauty before the cold weather gets them. Wash and dry your selected flowers and place them on tissue paper. Use heavy books to press your flowers. The process usually takes a few weeks, but with denser flowers like roses, it could take up to a month. If that's too long, you can also microwave your flowers to dry them out faster. Use your freshly-pressed flowers to make bookmarks, magnets, and greeting cards.

12. Find new uses for mason jars

Paint your mason jars with glow-in-the-dark paint and use them to illuminate a dark walkway. For more traditional light, fill your jar with candle wax and add your favorite scent. Decorate your glassware and turn them into rustic flower vases. If you’re feeling handy, buy some hose clamps from the hardware store and use them to hold up mason jars in the bathroom. Now you have a place to put your toothbrush, and the jars slip out when it’s time to wash them. The possibilities are endless!

13. Make summer wreaths

Wreaths don’t have to be just for Christmas. Greet your guests with summery shells, ribbons, and flowers. Start with a base; it can be wire, a picture frame, or a plain grapevine wreath. Next decide how you want to decorate it. You can add bows, flowers, fake fruit, sea shells, sea stars, or any other summery things you can think of. You can also cut paper into different shapes and add them around the sides.

14. Make moss graffiti

This is a great project for your backyard fence or the side of your house. Mix moss, water, water-retention gel and buttermilk in a blender. Once the ingredients are a pulpy green goo, put your solution in a bucket and grab a paintbrush. Find a good location and paint your design with the mixture. Mist the design about once a week with a spray bottle. After a few weeks, you’ll have moss growing in whatever shape you painted.

15. Make 5-minute ice cream

This is a great project to use if you want to teach someone about freezing points, but are also hungry. First, put cream, sugar, and vanilla in a plastic bag. Next, put that bag into a bigger bag filled with ice and salt. Shake the bag rigorously for five minutes and voilà! This works because the salt in the bag lowers the freezing point of the cream. Thanks to the sandwich bag, you don’t have to worry about having salty ice cream (unless that’s what you want).

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated. 

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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