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12 Awesome Pop-Culture Tours

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zicasso.com

Sometimes, it’s not enough to watch your favorite TV show or listen to a legendary band’s music; you also want to immerse yourself in the experience.

1. Game of Thrones: A Unique Tour of Croatia

The epic HBO series famously films in remote locales around the world, including Northern Ireland, Morocco, and Iceland (standing in for the Wall, where the Night’s Watch spends its frozen days and nights). But if you’d prefer not to succumb to frostbite, take this tour along the Adriatic Coast: GoT obsessives spend four days visiting Croatian filming locations, including Dubrovnik, which hard-core fans will recognize as Seven Kingdoms capital King’s Landing. (But be prepared to call in a Lannister debt if you book the tour: The trip costs $3200.)

2. Hunger Games Unofficial Fan Tours

You probably wouldn’t want to live in Panem, the nation at the center of The Hunger Games, or participate in the titular bloodbath at the series’ center. But on these tours, Katniss superfans come pretty close to seeing the world created in the films. You can choose to visit North Carolina, where DuPont State Recreational Forest was transformed into the Arena in the first film, or Atlanta, Georgia, to see the spots used as President Snow’s mansion and the cornucopia in 2013’s Catching Fire. There are also immersive, weekend-long trips meant to simulate the experience of actually participating in the Games—but maybe save those for the really die-hard fans.

3. BBC’s Sherlock Locations Tour

Travel as Sherlock and Watson do—in one of London’s iconic black taxi cabs—during this three-hour jaunt, which visits some of the sites used on the BBC series. Among the spots fans will see: St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, where—spoiler alert!—Sherlock fakes his death in the second series; the exterior of Charles Augustus Magnussen’s office; and, of course, 221B Baker Street. (Tour-goers also get a free cuppa at Speedy’s Cafe, the coffee shop next to the detectives’ office.)

4. The Doctor Who Experience

How do you properly celebrate a show that’s been on the air, in some iteration or another, for five decades? You give it a gigantic space in Cardiff, Wales, and fill it with enough props from the series to satisfy the biggest Whovian. This immersive experience opened in 2012 and includes artifacts from the show’s more than 50 years of existence: Costumes worn by every Doctor, from William Hartnell to Matt Smith, are on view, along with creepy models of some of the Doctor’s biggest foes, such as the Weeping Angels and the Daleks. (And like the Doctor himself, the experience regenerates every so often, with new props added on a rolling basis.)

5. Highclere Castle

Downton Abbey’s upstairs-downstairs drama has its basis in reality: The show is filmed at this 5000-acre estate in Hampshire, England, which serves as the home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. In fact, the story of Lady Almina, the fifth Countess of the castle, parallels that of Lady Grantham: She married into British aristocracy, and converted the home into a hospital during World War I. So what will Downton addicts see? The exterior is immediately recognizable, but fans can also explore the house itself; the bedrooms and library are among the rooms that were used as locations on the show. 

6. The Field of Dreams Site

It’s unlikely that if you visit this site, a mysterious voice will lead you to your destiny, or summon the ghosts of long-gone athletes. But still, fans of the 1989 Kevin Costner weepie can check out the Dyersville, Iowa farmhouse featured in the film, as well as its cornfields and the famed baseball diamond. Visitors can run the bases or take in a game—the Ghost Players will take the field, of course—and since the flick will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2014, expect special events throughout the year.

7. Warner Bros. Studio Tour London

Muggles can immerse themselves in Harry Potter’s world—from Privet Drive to Diagon Alley to the Great Hall at Hogwarts—at this Leavesden studio, which opened to the public in 2012. Each section of the site is stuffed with props from the Harry Potter films, including the Knight’s Bus, a enormous scale model of Hogwarts Castle, and the many treasures in Dumbledore’s office. But it’s also interactive: You can pretend you’re in a Quidditch match by riding a broom in front of a green screen, or find out what Butterbeer actually tastes like once and for all. 

8. Sex and the City Sites Tour

This three-and-a-half hour bus tour takes groups of SATC fans to more than 40 spots used on the show. It hits three neighborhoods: Midtown (The New York Public Library, Tiffany & Co.), the Meatpacking District (Buddakan, schmancy boutiques), and Greenwich Village (the Magnolia Bakery, duh). And yes, for those who are curious: the tour claims to be R-rated, so it won’t shy away from the show’s, uh, racier settings. 

9. Twin Peaks Fest

Looking for a slice of cherry pie and some damn fine coffee? Head to North Bend, Washington, where an annual celebration of David Lynch’s über-weird early-’90s series has taken place for more than 20 years. One of the centerpieces of the weekend-long event is a three-hour bus tour showcasing filming locations from the series, including the waterfall at Snoqualmie Falls (featured prominently in the opening credits) and the Weyerhaeuser sawmill, which stood in for the Packard Mill on the show. (And if you really want to sample that famous pie, take a detour to Twede’s Diner, also known as the Double R Diner on the show.) 

10. Magical Mystery Tour Liverpool

Of all the Beatles tours out there—and trust us, there are plenty—this one has one of the biggest perks for dedicated fans: It’s a two-hour bus ride on a replica of the vehicle used in the band’s 1967 film Magical Mystery Tour. (Nevermind the fact that the film wasn’t exactly a hit when it first premiered.) Along the way, tour-goers visit the church where John Lennon and Paul McCartney met for the first time; spots that provided inspiration for songs like “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”; and the Cavern Club, the Liverpool venue where they built up a pre-Beatlemania following. 

11. Lord of the Rings Tours and Experiences

Middle-Earth may not be real, but Queenstown, New Zealand is—and several tours offered by Southern Lakes Sightseeing take fans of Frodo & co. to locations used in Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films. Two of the longer tours take visitors on journeys along the trails traversed by the Fellowship, while a shorter tour focuses exclusively on the weapons and props used in the movies, including Aragorn’s hunting knife and Gimli’s ax. (And yes, you can handle and take photos with the weapons—but carefully.)

12. 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 more than 15 years after the show's finale. Book your Spring/Summer 2014 tour now! Think your $37.50 ticket comes with a bite-size 3 Musketeers?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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