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All Aboard! 7 Offbeat Bus Tours

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If you thought bus tours were only for people with bad travel agents, you were right. But they're also for perfectly normal people with perfectly bizarre tastes. If you haven't made your summer travel plans yet, here are some sweet recommendations.

1. Vegas Mob Tour

For about five seconds in the 1990s, Las Vegas tried to clean up its act. The new "family-friendly" Vegas — with amusement-style attractions, PG-rated shows and Disneyfied dining experiences — promised to de-sleaze the Sin City. But the promoters of the "new Vegas" overlooked one important fact: sleaze sells. And as quickly as you can say, "Room service, bring me another stripper," the real Vegas was back.

The sleaze factor did not elude the creators of the Vegas Mob Tour, a 2.5-hour van ride through Vegas' blood-soaked past. As you'll learn on the tour, Vegas was founded by mobsters like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky and was ruled until the mid-1980s by a parade of business-minded sociopaths with middle names starting with "The."

"I try to do it tactfully and with taste, as much as you can with a mob tour," the creator of the tour told the LA Times. "You can say someone cut off someone's head with a machete, but we prefer to say decapitated." Nice touch.

The Vegas Mob Tour is based on inside information provided by FBI agents, law enforcement specialists and a lovely gentlemen named Frank Cullotta, the ex-hitman for Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, himself the inspiration for Joe Pesci's character in Casino. The founders hope to parlay the mob tour's success into a Vegas mob museum.

2. Tours for Insomniacs and Elevator Enthusiasts

Marlene Gordon is a Los Angeles original. Bored with her day job as legal secretary in a patent firm, Gordon began to seek out the hidden gems of her hometown and conduct impromptu tours for out-of-town guests and anyone else who couldn't quickly think of an excuse to bail. Over 30 years later, Gordon is still at it, driving van-fulls of gawking tourists through LA's lesser-known sights"¦ and occasional smells.

Gordon's "SCENTimental Journey" is described as a "nose-twitching aroma tour" of LA's "fragrant destinations." The "LA in Miniature" tour takes an up-close look at the city through microscopes, magnifying glasses and even "the eye of a needle" (?).

Gordon's most popular offering is the "Insomniac's Tour," which drags groggy tourists through the train station at 4 a.m. and introduces them to the pre-dawn wholesale action at the city's produce and flower market. But the one that really captures our imagination is called "LA Has Its Ups and Downs," described as "a truly amazing escalator and elevator tour from downtown to the sea."

3. LA Gang Tours

South Central Los Angeles doesn't get a lot of ink in Fodor's. And the only maps you're likely to see of LA neighborhoods like Compton, Gardena and Hawthorne are blocked off in sections of red and blue — Bloods and Crips. South Central is LA's most famous and infamous gang territory, the setting for films like Boyz n the Hood and countless mid-90s rap videos. But as an LA tourist destination, South Central has never been a draw. Until now.

Alfred Lomas — a former gang member — wants to educate the public on the realities of gang life in LA. Back in January, he made the inaugural run of the LA Gang Tour, a bus tour of an urban area most Americans have only seen in COPS footage. Lomas doesn't try to whitewash the image of South Central or glamorize the "ghetto" lifestyle. Instead, for $65 a ticket, Lomas takes tourists on a 12-stop exploration of the roots and realities of gang violence.

Between stops at the LA County Sheriff's Jail, the graffiti-covered concrete wasteland of the LA River, and a "drive-by" of notorious housing projects, Lomas invites ex-gang-bangers to board the bus and share their personal stories of poverty, violence, drugs and redemption. Proceeds from the tour go to community programs that help gang members turn their lives around.

4. DC Spy Tour

On June 13, 1985, CIA counter-intelligence analyst Aldrich Ames walked into Chadwick's restaurant in Washington, DC, for a 3 p.m. lunch date with the KGB. In exchange for over $2 million, Ames handed the agents a list of nearly 100 names, many of them Soviet moles on the CIA payroll. Within months, 10 of these people were arrested and executed by the Soviets.

Twenty-five years later, Chadwick's is just one of 25 stops on the thrilling (and chilling, of course) DC Spy Tour, a project of the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. Little did you know that the nation's capital is also the "world capital of espionage," and you'll get all the juicy details from former KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin and his team of traitors-turned-tour-guides.

Is that really the apartment where Cuban spy Jennifer Miles slept her way through the U.S. State Department? Could that be the same French bistro where KGB defector Vitaly Yurchenka escaped through the kitchen and de-defected at the Russian embassy? For $75, the spy secrets are yours. Compared to what the KGB paid, that's a pretty good deal.

5. Celebrity Death Tours

"If you're rich and famous, Cedars is the hospital to die in," says Scott Michaels, creator and resident "Death Hag" of Hollywood's Dearly Departed Tours. Michael's three-hour tour of the cemeteries, overdose locations and murder houses of the famously dead received a 20% uptick in reservations after Michael Jackson died.

A fan favorite is the Helter Skelter Tour, a voyeuristic van ride exploring the Manson family cult and its victims. As a twisted perk, everyone goes home with a tiny piece of the brick fireplace from Roman Polanski's LA home where Manson's minions murdered actress Sharon Tate. That's a keeper.

6. Russian and Chinese "Dating" Tours

The concept behind an international "dating" tour is simple. If you haven't found your bride-to-be at the favorite local hang-outs — laundromat, grocery store, church, online Twilight forum — it might be time to fly halfway around the world to work your magic on packs of visa-hunters who speak little English.

The Russian Valentines Tour includes 10 days of bus travel to the historical and cultural highlights of Odessa plus three "socials" in which "several hundred beautiful, educated and sincere women," some of whom "travel thousands of miles for the chance to meet our tour participants," will mob you like a celebrity. "It's not uncommon for our clients to be surrounded by 4 or 5 women, while other women wait for their chance to be introduced." They're lining up over there!

The same deal is available in China, where each day of sightseeing in megacities like Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou is capped with a "dating event" featuring dinner, dancing and cocktails with 50 eager "office ladies" from the host city. If these trips don't bag you a wife, there's no one to blame but the interpreter.

7. Kramer's Reality Tour

Remember the Seinfeld episode where Cosmo Kramer launched the J. Peterman Reality Tour? That was a spoof on Kenny Kramer's Reality Tour, an actual bus tour run by the inspiration for Michael Richards' character. The bus visits famous Seinfeld scenes and gives you behind-the-scenes info. You might see, for example, "the place where Kramer and Newman got the black market shower heads." Or learn that "there is an actual Russell Dalrymple, Lloyd Braun, Becky Gelke, John Mollica, Al Niche, and even a person called 'The Drake.'"

Despite Jerry's claim that "nobody wants to go on a three hour bus tour of a totally unknown person's life," the Kramer Reality Tour is still going strong—book your Spring/Summer 2010 tour now! Think your $37.50 ticket comes with a bite-size 3 Musketeers?

Here's a look at the Peterman Reality Tour:

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Have you ever been on a unique bus tour of something? Tell us about it in the comments.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]