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11 Interactive Zoos

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Visiting your local zoo is always a great way to experience and appreciate a whole spectrum of animals, but it’s hard to feel as if you’re really interacting with those fuzzy monkeys or roaring lions or sleek dolphins when you’re (safely, of course) ensconced behind glass or a gate. Luckily, there are plenty of zoos, aquariums, and wildlife parks that have put together fun (and, again, safe!) ways to interact with some of their finest residents in a very hands-on manner. If you’re looking to make your next zoo trip one to remember, may we suggest taking the plunge (sometimes literally) with one of these interactive zoo experiences?

1. Adventure Aquarium – Camden, New Jersey


Adventure Aquarium Facebook

Plenty of people can swim with dolphins (and, yes, we’ll tell you where you can actually do that), but not everyone is willing to dive deep with sharks. The appropriately titled Adventure Aquarium at the New Jersey Aquarium offers its visitors the unique opportunity to swim and snorkel with sharks. After training (thank goodness), you can get your swim on in a submerged channel at the top of the Shark Realm exhibit, complete with cut outs that allow you to lean out into the tank—and which sandbar sharks, nurse sharks, and more can swim into, should they desire. Once your shark swim is complete, you can join up with the stingrays in the Stingray Lagoon, where you can swim with them and feed them. After you get out of the shark-infested waters, feel free to wander the aquarium (and show off your souvenir t-shirt, snorkel, and mask to passersby), all included in the $175 ticket price.

2. Lowry Park Zoo – Tampa, Florida

Lowry Park Zoo Facebook

A number of zoos offer special feeding interactive experiences, but Florida’s Lowry Park Zoo is one of the few to feature white rhino feeding options. Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, patrons can help give the rhino population a snack, a unique and rare experience that a slim number of zoos can provide. Are rhinos not your thing? You can also feed the giraffes at Lowry Park—or, really, why not just do both?

3. The Garold Wayne Interactive Zoological Park – Wynnewood, Oklahoma

GW Zoo

It’s right there in its name—Oklahoma’s Garold Wayne Interactive Zoological Park is all about hands-on experience, and there is nothing quite as hands-on as a little something the zoo calls “Play Time With a Baby.” You read that correctly: for just $45 per pair, you can interact with available baby animals for 15 minutes. While the zoo offers a variety, visitors most often get to play with wee tigers.

4. Adelaide Zoo – Adelaide, Australia

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Australia’s Adelaide Zoo offers not one, but two interactive experiences. First up is the Big Cat Interactive, which varies from day to day (depending on moods and availability) and can include stuff like feeding lions or getting up close with Sumatran tigers. You can also hang out with their Nile hippo pair, Susie and Brutus (at $90 a person, it’s a bit cheaper than the Big Cat, which costs $145), assisting a zookeeper with their daily mouth check and the distribution of yummy hippo snacks (don’t eat them, okay?).

5. San Diego Zoo – San Diego, California

San Diego Zoo Facebook

The San Diego Zoo offers a number of “special experiences,” including the one-and-a-half-hour-long “Backstage Pass” (it will only cost you $99 per person). The Pass will allow you to touch, help train, and get up close and personal with plenty of the zoo’s many animals. Popular variations of the Pass include meeting a cheetah (and getting a photo with your new spotted pal), a chance to touch the rhinos, and feeding plenty of other zoo residents.

6. Indianapolis Zoo – Indianapolis, Indiana

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Are sharks not really your speed? The Indianapolis Zoo offers the chance to swim with their kinder cousins, thanks to their Dolphin In-Water adventure. After classroom training, you’ll get to spend 35 minutes in the dolphin pool (wading only!), where you can help feed the dolphins and practice their signs with them. The nonmember ticket price is steep—$225 per person—but think of those dolphins! And your new souvenir towel!

7. Cincinnati Zoo – Cincinnati, Ohio

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The Cincinnati Zoo offers a bevy of special experiences—from hanging with red pandas and camels to feeding giraffes to their very special Junior Zookeeper option (yes, it’s heavy on the baby animals)—but their Elephant Extravaganza is a unique chance to meet the zoo’s four beloved elephants. Even better? After the talented My-Thai paints you a picture, you help give her a bubble bath. The extravaganza will set you back $500 per couple, but a portion of all proceeds will go to helping elephants in the wild.

8. Houston Zoo – Houston, Texas

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Giraffes in general seem pretty open to accepting a bite from perfect strangers, and the Houston Zoo’s Masai giraffe family are no different. The zoo offers twice-daily feedings for just $5 per person (hey, lettuce isn’t free), depending on both “weather and giraffe participation.”

9. Detroit Zoo – Detroit, Michigan

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The Detroit Zoo wins instant points for its fun experience names—Breakfast with the Butterflies!—but the hands-down winner is their Mingle with the Macaronis program that allows visitors to get cozy with penguins in their own habitat. For about an hour, you can learn about the Macaronis (and Rockhoppers and Kings), feed them, and watch them play. Not sold yet? You can take a whole group for $600, and that price includes—get ready for it—a visit to their incubation/nursery area.

10. National Zoo – Canberra, Australia 

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Australia’s National Zoo in Canberra offers patrons the chance to get interactive with their punchily-titled “Meet a Cheetah” experience. The big cats, supposedly the “friendliest” of the bunch, will greet up to two patrons (plus one zookeeper!) during each highly sought-after 15-minute session. The zoo promises that participants (“meetahs”?) will have the chance to pet and play with the land speed champs. After your meet and greet is over, you can spend the rest of the day at the zoo proper, as the $175 per person fee also includes full access to the rest of the facilities. Go unwind with some penguins.

11. ZSL London Zoo – London, England

ZSL Facebook

If you really want to go all out, there’s nothing quite like the London Zoo’s Keeper for a Day program. You’ll spend the whole day with a friendly zookeeper host, doing the good (meeting giraffes, penguins, oh my!), the bad (wait, there’s nothing bad about this), and the ugly (fine, you have to help clean). It’s certainly not the cheapest interactive experience—it will cost you about £280 per person—but it’s probably the best.

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technology
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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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