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11 Ways to Upgrade Your Backyard

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Getting a dream backyard—not to mention maintaining it—takes a lot of work. If your space is looking a little unloved, consider these do-it-yourself upgrades that will have you enjoying your outdoor space in no time.

1. CONSTRUCT KEYHOLE GARDEN SPACES.

Permaculture expert Matt Powers recommends adding keyhole gardens to your backyard for both visual appeal and space-saving planting. These C- or U-shaped beds provide enough room for gardeners to stand or pivot while working, along with easy access from both sides. Keyhole gardens are easy to modify based on personal needs and your backyard vision, and this permaculture practice is an easy way to incorporate gardening for beginning green thumbs.

2. GIVE YOUR DIRTY DECK A FACELIFT.

Decks often take on a gray, grungy look as they age, making your entire backyard look frumpy. But with some elbow grease and a household cleaner, it’s possible to shave a few years off a wooden deck’s appearance without a power washer (which can often be too rough on wooden surfaces). This Old House host Kevin O’Connor recommends scrubbing wooden decks with oxygenated bleach and a soft brush to remove mildew and dirt. Follow a good cleaning with sanding and a new coat of protective stain. O’Connor suggests tackling deck cleaning during the springtime to avoid the further stress on wooden decks that’s often experienced by hot summer days.

3. PLANT SPEEDY SHADE.

A backyard with no shade can make summertime miserable. Ditch the basic patio umbrella for fast-growing trees (like willows, poplars, or soft-wooded maples) that provide natural shade. Selecting the perfect tree for your green space (and knowing how to care for it) can be overwhelming, so make the task easier with the Arbor Day Foundation’s tree wizard. This digital tool narrows in on the best saplings for your backyard based on climate, growth rate, and size.

4. END RAINY DAY SOGGINESS WITH SWALES.

If your outdoor space resembles more of a lake than a yard following a heavy rain, constructing a swale can help. Swales—shallow trenches that help slow and soak up excess water—can be used to redirect water for gardening or to simply avoid flooding. While this form of earthwork has a purpose, it doesn’t have to look like bare dirt. Permaculture author Amy Stross suggests using swales as borders for raised beds or filling with gravel for visually appealing pathways.

5. REPAIR AND REVAMP OUTDOOR FURNITURE.

Patio sets and lounge chairs aren’t cheap to replace, so consider giving new life to what you already have. Metal furniture can easily be wire-brushed clean of flaking paint and coatings while rust removers can finish off prep work. Several coats of primer and paint in a trendy color can give your entire patio set a new look. Older wicker furniture can also get a second chance thanks to some basic care. Furniture restoration expert Cathryn Peters suggests bringing natural fiber furniture indoors at night and in inclement weather to prolong its life. For older, worn pieces, freshen with a turpentine and boiled linseed oil mix before re-staining with an oil-based varnish, shellac, or lacquer.

6. DITCH THE SOD FOR FOOD.

Instead of begrudgingly mowing grass all summer, scrap your back lawn for greenery that gives maximum returns. Activist and author Heather Jo Flores suggests ditching backyard greenery altogether for homegrown foods in Food Not Lawns. By starting with small patches of yard and working up to larger areas (or the entire space), it’s possible to grow hundreds of pounds of produce per year without being overwhelmed by garden work. And if there’s no grass to dig, Flores recommends gardening in containers or using vertical spaces along fences and your home.

7. STAIN A CONCRETE PATIO FOR A POLISHED LOOK.

Concrete patios can get a facelift, too. Many homeowners settle for the standard (and affordable) gray concrete look, but adding a stain or pattern can personalize your patio space on the cheap. With this two-day project, it’s easy to replicate the look of bricks or stones without the cost—or the dreadful task of keeping grout clean and weed-free.

8. GROW A NATURAL PRIVACY FENCE.

Natural fences can help your green space feel secluded (even in a busy neighborhood), but know upfront that this form of fencing isn’t an instant fix, considering they can take years to grow in. Landscape designer Sandra Jonas says natural fences can keep intruders and wildlife out of your yard, especially bushes with thorns or rough leaves. While there are countless ways to design a natural fence, Jonas warns against planting bamboo because of its eagerness to spread—leading to a lot more outdoor work.

9. USE MIRROR TRICKS TO INCREASE THE SIZE YOUR YARD.

Mirrors have long been used indoors as room-lengthening décor pieces, but you can also take this trick outside to increase the size of your yard without having to purchase more space. Tuck mirrors into planters, along fences, and as large yard decor to reflect light and give the illusion of a larger space. Choose mirrors that can withstand outdoor weather and temperature changes, and avoid placing them in areas birds frequent to prevent collisions.

10. REGENERATE BALDING LAWN SPOTS.

Spring is the best time to weed out grass problems for a lush lawn, including unsightly bald spots. You may see dead spots in areas where pets urinate or children play frequently, or in spots where too much or too little water is an issue. The Royal Horticultural Society suggests cutting out dead patches of grass and lightly aerating before sprinkling new grass seed or applying turf. Matching up the seed or turf variety with your existing grass can help this repair blend for a seamless look.

11. ADD A SIMPLE (AND RELAXING) WATER ELEMENT.

Adding a fountain or pond to your backyard can seem intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. According to HGTV’s Chris Lambton, most water features have the same basic pieces—a liner, a pump, and an electrical source—making them fairly easy (and inexpensive) to install yourself. Whether you choose an earthy vibe or a modern concrete design, a water feature can elevate your backyard’s relaxation factor and act as a mini stress reliever. And, after all, isn't that one of the main reasons to have a pretty, well-maintained outdoor space?

All images via iStock unless otherwise noted.

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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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