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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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