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5 Affordable, Underrated Travel Destinations in the U.S.

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Major airlines are cutting their fares to keep up with the competition, making travel more affordable and accessible than ever. Cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Miami are known for their tourism, but why not check out a hidden gem that's yet to be overrun with tourists? These under-the-radar destinations have all the amenities of a travel-friendly city without the crazy crowds and tourist traps—and your dollar will get you further, to boot.

1. CLEVELAND, OHIO

Nestled on the coast of Lake Erie, Cleveland is undergoing a travel renaissance. Since 2011, over $3.5 billion has been spent on visitor-related infrastructure investments, says Nick Urig of Destination Cleveland. “What some still think is just a stop on the interstate is home to some of the country’s most renowned cultural institutions, quirkiest museums, [famed] sports teams, and most-visited green spaces,” Urig tells mental_floss.

In particular, Downtown Cleveland has transformed significantly in recent years. In its first few months of opening, the Hilton Cleveland Downtown was booked solid during the Republican National Convention and Games 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals. “And with the World Series having happened just steps from the hotel, we know we will only see the numbers of visitors and events in the city continue to rise,” Stuart Foster, VP of global brand marketing for Hilton, tells mental_floss. “As a Cleveland native, it’s incredible to see all the transformation happening in this great city.”

It’s also affordable. According to Kayak, median flight prices to the city from the U.S. and Canada are 22 percent lower than they were in 2015, and median hotel rates are under $250 a night. When visiting, you’ll want to make time for the West Side Market, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. “The Cleveland Museum of Art is one of the only nationally recognized art museums to offer free admission to its permanent collection, which features more than 45,000 pieces of art from artists like Dali, Monet, and Warhol,” Urig says.

2. BOISE, IDAHO

“Boise is often called a ‘mini Austin’ for its similar characteristics: laid-back, outdoorsy, hills and rivers in the city, identical capitol buildings,” says Erin Bulcher, Content Manager at FareCompare.com. Domestic round-trip flights to Boise are about $350 on average, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Once you get there, you can stretch your dollar by taking advantage of Boise's many free outdoor activities. With the Boise River running straight through it, the city offers amazing fishing, whitewater rafting, and scenic views. “Boise is a place you can hike or ride a bike in the hills, come off the trail and hit up a pizza joint or grab a drink at a local bar,” Bulcher says. She recommends simply walking the Boise River Greenbelt, a 25-mile trail that follows the river and passes through museums, golf courses, and beautiful scenery.

3. PORTLAND, MAINE

The East Coast’s version of Portland is a charming city with small-town vibes, and it’s definitely worth a visit. “What used to be a place to pass through on the way up Maine's rugged coast is now packed with a week's worth of must-try restaurants and brews,” says David Solomito, VP of NA Marketing at Kayak. “Dining options abound but traditionalists like to stop by the foodie haunt that started it all: Fore Street.”

Known worldwide, the gourmet restaurant opened in 1996 a block from the waterfront in Portland's Old Port District. On the National Register of Historic Places, the Old Port features cobblestone streets and 19th century buildings, but it’s also known for its bustling nightlife. You can take a walk down the city's main drag, Congress Street, to check out the many bars, shops, and art.

If you prefer to stay outside of the hub, check out Portland’s historic West End—and better yet, stay in a classic New England bed and breakfast (the Pomegranate Inn is a fun option). Once you're fed and rested, head to the Portland Museum of Art, which is free every Friday from 4 to 8 p.m. and $15 otherwise. And of course, you have to see a lighthouse or two in Portland; for that, you can drive up the coast and stop at the gorgeous Portland Head Light in Fort Williams Park.

4. SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS

It’s probably best known for being home to the Alamo, a must-see historic mission that sits smack-dab in the middle of San Antonio’s downtown area, but there’s a lot more to the city than that. The San Antonio Riverwalk, for example, stretches through downtown and is lined with restaurants, galleries, and hotels. “While everyone remembers the Alamo, they often forget about San Antonio,” Solomito says. “The city defines Tex-Mex culture, so be sure to head to Rosario's, or another of the city’s many great restaurants, for an authentic taste.”

“Recently the city is seeing a bigger travel surge because it's a smaller city of Texas but has all the Southwestern charm,” says Jennifer Buglione of Texas-based public relations firm Giant NoiseYou’ll want to check out the McNay Art Museum, San Fernando Cathedral, and for a little kitschy fun, the Buckhorn Saloon & Museum. For a more upscale experience, try the Paramour, a swanky rooftop bar close to the Museum of Art in Downtown San Antonio; compared to the price of fancy cocktails in New York and L.A., the $12 drinks here will feel like a steal.

5. MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA

Let’s face it, when you think getaway, you probably don’t think of Minnesota. However, Minneapolis is a gorgeous outdoorsy city known for its music and theater—and since it’s still considered under-the-radar, it’s generally pretty affordable.

Visitors shouldn't miss the Minnehaha Falls, a 53-foot waterfall within the city limits; it is arguably even more beautiful in the winter when the Falls freeze over. And art lovers should be sure to check out the Walker Art Center or Midway Contemporary Art Gallery. If you choose to stay at the Le Méridien Chambers Minneapolis, the hotel will give you free entry to many of the museums around the city. For a more upscale experience, stay at the The Foshay, the W's Minneapolis location (you can still snag a room and breakfast for less than $200 per night). Both hotels also offer complimentary biking tours of the city.

Kayak also named Minneapolis one of their Top 10 cities to visit for New Year's Eve. Median flights for late December and January are around $285, and hotels are less than $200. It’s cold in the winter, yes, but Minneapolis has an 11-mile interlocking skyway system that spans a whopping 69 city blocks, so you’re covered (literally).

All images courtesy of iStock.

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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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