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All-American Road Trip: 18 Stops on the Pan-American Highway

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Covering almost 30,000 miles, the Pan-American Highway offers the most diverse scenery on the planet—and plenty of pit stops.

1. PRUDHOE BAY, ALASKA

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Although the permanent population in the nearby town of Deadhorse hovers around 25, finding a place to stay is a cinch: The Aurora Hotel has 400 beds.

2. THE SOURTOE COCKTAIL, YUKON

Robin Esrock

Stop at the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City and slam back a special champagne cocktail garnished with a salted human toe. (Nearly a dozen digits have been swallowed!)

3. TOMBSTONE TERRITORIAL PARK, YUKON

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This expansive park on the edge of the Arctic Circle gets its macabre name from the black granite peaks that are thought to resemble grave markers.

4. WEST EDMONTON MALL, ALBERTA

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The largest shopping mall in North America swallows 48 city blocks. (While you’re in the neighborhood, take a side trip to see the world’s largest sausage in Mundare.)

5. HOLE-IN-THE-WALL HIDEOUT, WYOMING

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Outlaws like Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, and the Sundance Kid hid from the law in this Bighorn Mountain Pass.

6. VERY LARGE ARRAY, NEW MEXICO

Where 27 of the world’s most powerful radio antennae observe black holes and star formations in distant galaxies.

7. CHAPULTEPEC CASTLE, MEXICO

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The estate housed Mexico’s only monarch, Maximilian I, making it the only true castle in North America.

8. UXMAL, MEXICO

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There are many legends about how this Mayan step pyramid, the tallest structure in Uxmal, came to be, one of which says that it was built in a single night by a dwarf who hatched from an iguana egg.

9. JOYA DE CEREN, EL SALVADOR

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Central America’s version of Pompeii, this ancient village was preserved under layers of volcanic ash.

10. HELADERIA COROMOTO, VENEZUELA

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This ice cream shop in Merida boasts the largest flavor selection in the world—860! Try the trout, chili, hot dog, and Viagra Hope.

11. AVENUE OF THE VOLCANOES, ECUADOR

This stretch of highway E35 winds around eight of the country’s 10 most explosive peaks, including Cotopaxi.

12. SWING AT THE END OF THE WORLD, ECUADOR

This simple swing is the real attraction at the seismic monitoring station known as Casa del Arbol or "The Treehouse", which is used for observing Mt. Tungurahua.

13. FORTRESS OF KUELAP, PERU

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The largest stone ruin site in the Western Hemisphere, the towering walls of bulky stone blocks make Machu Pichu look like a preschool project.

14. SALAR DE UYUNI, BOLIVIA

With 4086 square miles of the stuff making up the world's largest salt flat, there's enough to build an entire luxury hotel made of salt.

15. WHALE GRAVEYARD, CHILE

Scientists have discovered more than 40 fossilized whale skeletons here, including some extinct “bizarre aquatic sloths.”

16. LUJAN ZOO, ARGENTINA

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You can literally hug lions, tigers, and bears here in Buenos Aires.

17. PERITO MORENO GLACIER, ARGENTINA

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The glacier is one of 48 fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, which is the world's third largest reserve of fresh water.

18. USHUAIA, ARGENTINA

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Tierra del Fuego’s capital is as far south as you can drive! If you want to keep going, take the ferry to the Southern Patagonia Ice Field.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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