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5 Travel Destinations for Super-Adventurous Tourists

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There's no shortage of destinations for adventure travelers. Intrepid souls can cliff dive, rock climb, or trek across the desert. That's not enough for some folks' wanderlust, though. They want to venture to destinations that are downright terrifying for most of us. Here are just a few of the scary locales you can pack a bag for.

1. The Other Way to Get Shipped to Iraq

Most people would do anything they could to avoid seeing war-torn Iraq, but if the travel bug bites you, England's Hinterland Travel can probably arrange a tour of the country for you. Last month the New York Times reported that the first officially sanctioned tour of Iraq by Westerners since 2003 was underway. By working with the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, Hinterland was able to take an eight-person group of tourists to see places most of us will only hear about on CNN, from Basra to Baghdad.

Heading into a war-ravaged country might not sound like your idea of fun, but if you're really set on taking in sights none of your friends have seen, this might be the way to go. Hinterland Travel is offering upcoming tours that include not just Iraq, but also northwestern Iran. Since these aren't exactly vacation hotspots, the three-week itineraries are pretty reasonably priced at just 1,900 British pounds plus airfare and meals. Of course, you'll be effectively uninsurable for the duration of this little jaunt, so you might want to bring some extra cash along in case anything goes wrong.

2. See Rumi's hometown in Afghanistan

Picture 17.pngIf you want to visit a nation currently at war but don't feel like making the trip to Iraq, then Afghanistan could be your dream destination. Whether you want to see the very recent effects of the military conflict in the country or take in the truly remote parts of its geography, there are tour companies that can make it happen. Afghan Logistics & Tours offers six, 10, and 15-day tours for Westerners to see what Afghanistan's like. The tours include visits to the Masjid Now Gumad, or the Nine Domes Mosque, one of the world's oldest mosques, and Balkh, home of the 13th-century poet Rumi.

But just how dangerous is it to visit Afghanistan? According to the tour company's site, it's not too bad if you stay in the right parts of the country. Then again, the company also seems to do a booming business in armor-clad Toyotas, so you might want to be a bit more cautious than usual if you book one of these trips.

3. Colombia's Gorgeous Scenery

Picture 16.pngMoving right on down the State Department's list of Travel Warnings, we arrive at Colombia. Although the State Department concedes that kidnappings have fallen from their peak earlier this decade and narco-terrorism isn't quite as bad as it used to be in urban areas, it still strongly advises against traveling to Colombia. In fact, it won't even allow its own employees to travel by bus or leave urban areas.
That said, for just $1600 per person a tour company like De Una can give you a three-week tour of Colombia that hits all of the country's natural beauty, involves whitewater rafting, and takes you to see coffee production. The upside is that you'll get to take in some breathtaking scenery. The downside? If narco-terrorists kidnap you, they're not likely to let you go anytime soon. Last summer the Colombian government finally rescued a group of kidnapping victims, including three Americans, who had been held for over five years.

4. Visit Sudan for the Pyramids

Picture 20.pngIt's no secret than things are tragically awful in Sudan, but that doesn't mean you can't still make it your vacation destination. Bestway Tours and Safaris offers a two-week tour of the country for $3180 per person. Although the nation is in rough shape now, it's got a long history that dates back for thousands of years. Sudan is still littered with Nubian ruins and pyramids, and these tours take in a lot of this ancient history along the Nile delta-- certainly fascinating for anyone interested in antiquity.

Even though this kind of tour mostly goes through the opposite side of the country from war-ravaged Darfur, the State Department still strongly advises against all travel to Sudan. The warning reminds potential travelers that both terrorists and the Sudanese government have a tendency to target Westerners for physical threats or seizure of property and financial assets. If you've got the cash and stomach for it, though, you can probably see some really terrific ruins and monuments.

5. Transylvania

Picture 15.png"Wait, there's no such thing as vampires."Â  Yeah, you're probably right. However, if they actually do exist, Transylvania seems like it would be the place to find them. That's why the Company of Mysterious Journeys offers several "Dracula tours" throughout the region that include all of the high points of the famous vampire's legend, including visits to Castle Dracula and a tour of places involved in the life of the historical Dracula, Vlad the Impaler. The tours vary in length from a weekend to over a week, which would ensure that you get all the Dracula you can handle.

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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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