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Camping vs. Glamping

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Glamor camping, or "glamping," as it's been dubbed, is on the rise in the U.S., even as the number of visits to national parks is declining. Last year there were 20 million fewer park visits than there were a decade ago, and the number of campers who "rough it" in gigantic RVs is quickly catching up to the number of those who do it in tents on the ground. What does all this mean? Even as our "eco-awareness" balloons, our willingness to experience nature in a primitive way is waning (even if the space-age, lightweight, sweat-wicking materials we make our tents and sleeping bags and whatever else out of are far from primitive.) Exhibit A, though, has to be glamping. So what is glamping? If you have around $10,000 per person per week (and up) to spend on a luxe camping trip, you can find out for yourself. Otherwise, here's what you're missing.

The Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, Vancouver Island

Far from the beaten path and an hour's small-plane flight from the mainland, Clayoquot isn't the kind of campground where you'll find yourself in a pup tent wedged between obnoxious families drinking beer; instead, expect luxury "tents" furnished with antiques, Persian rugs and king-sized beds with heated blankets. You can ask your personal gourmet chef to serve up the s'mores and a hot dog if you want -- though most opt for the rack of lamb or butter-braised salmon. If it's hiking you're after, a team of guides will drive you to the best part of the trail and drop you off in a spot where you'll never have to pass the same tree twice or climb too steep a hill. Horse stables and private boats are also available on a whim -- and then there's the massage tent. The cost for all this next-to-nature luxury? About $50,000 for a weeklong family trip.

Paws Up Resort, Montana

Multi-room luxury tents are the norm here, but if you can't handle the 30-second walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night -- that's an outhouse featuring heated slate floors, granite countertops and showers big enough for two -- then you can upgrade to a "cabin": 1,440 square feet on four acres, complete with hot tub. Either way, you'll be in good company; among the clientele winging into Paws Up on private jets are the Rolling Stones, who once took over the place for a week. If you're content with just the luxury tent, you'll pay $600/night, plus $110 per day per person for food. (If you decide to book it, tell 'em who sent you!)

Abercrombie and Kent

2_antarctica.jpgForget Fitch -- Abercrombie and Kent has been whisking the ultra-rich away on high-end camping trips for decades. Their classic trip is an African safari "in the style of Hemingway and Roosevelt," if you can believe that Hemingway enjoyed a five-course banquet on the African plain for dinner every evening; if you ask us, it's a safari in the style of Bill Gates and Sting, both of whom have toured the African bush with A&K. If big game isn't your cup of tea, however, travelers can participate in a food-offering ceremony with Buddhist monks in Bangkok, explore the citadel of Machu Picchu in the company of its resident archaeologist, or sail around Antarctica on the floating equivalent of the Four Seasons, on which each passenger has their own butler -- for about $20,000/week. All of which makes me think that $400 tent I balked at shelling out for was a big fat bargain.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]