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6 Flight Attendants Gone Wild

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They're authoritative, courteous, and could win an Olympic gold in Complimentary Beverage Pouring. But flight attendants have baggage, too. Read on for 6 first-class examples of flight attendants who brought their own turbulence to the job.

1. Attention Passengers: This Is Captain Morgan Speaking

Atlantic Southeast Airlines flight attendant Sarah Mills didn't have to leave the ground to reach a comfortable boozing altitude. In 2007, she showed up to work with a blood alcohol level which was technically low enough to legally drive, but not low enough to keep her from dropping the f-bomb and threatening to punch boarding passengers. The flight from Kentucky to Atlanta was cancelled when a replacement flight attendant couldn't be found. Mills admitted to drinking whiskey aboard, but pleaded not guilty to terroristic threatening and public alcohol intoxication. The question remains: Did she BYOB or chug a few of those tiny bottles of Jack Daniels?

2. The Public Duress System

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Back in March, American Airlines Flight 2332 from Dallas to Chicago was delayed when a flight attendant delivered a 15-minute rant over the plane's public address system. But this tirade wasn't about stowing portable electronic devices. As the pilot taxied the aircraft to the runway, the flight attendant rambled about the airline's bankruptcy and impending technical difficulties, announcing, "I'm not responsible for this plane crashing." Four passengers had to help another flight attendant restrain her co-worker. The plane returned to the gate and the entire crew was replaced.

3. To Blog, Or Not To Blog

Wikimedia Commons

Remember when people didn't realize that blogging about their jobs might get them fired? Back in 2004, flight attendant Ellen Simonetti was suspended and then fired for her blog "Queen of Sky: Diary of a Dysfunctional Flight Attendant." Simonetti's Internet prose was more about travel tips than steamy mile-high club anecdotes, and the flight attendant even kept her employer anonymous. But Delta Airlines didn't appreciate pictures of the perky blonde goofing off on an empty plane and climbing inside the overhead compartment ... in uniform. D'oh! In 2005, Simonetti sued Delta for sex discrimination and retaliation, eventually settling out of court. She became an advocate/cautionary tale for bloggers, scored a book deal, and may even have her own biopic in the works. The sky's the limit!

4. Take This Job and Shove It Down The Evacuation Slide

No list of flight attendants gone postal (er, continental) would be complete without mentioning Steven Slater. The JetBlue flight attendant made headlines in 2010 when he quit over the public address system ("I've been in this business 20 years. And that's it, I'm done."), grabbed two beers from the plane's food service galley, deployed the emergency evacuation chute, and slid himself right out of a career. Accounts vary as to what triggered the Office Space-worthy meltdown after an otherwise ordinary flight from Pittsburgh to NYC. Slater says he was hit on the head with luggage by a cursing passenger who refused to wait until the fasten seatbelt sign was off to remove her bag. Other witnesses said it was your typical encounter with a rude passenger, no big deal. Slater later tried to recant and go back to work, but formally resigned a month later. To some, he's a working-class hero. JetBlue called him reckless ("Slides can be as dangerous as a gun") and said he was probably drunk and suffering from mental problems.

5. Skyway Robbery

Ever feel like you're getting robbed when a full flight gets cancelled for no apparent reason, or you're given a single cup of soda to get through a cross-country trip? It could be worse—sometimes airline employees actually steal your stuff. In September, Horizon Air flight attendant Wendy Ronelle Dye was arrested near Portland after swiping a passenger's iPad. When the device went missing, the passenger checked a tracking app he'd installed and found it with Dye's personal belongings. The flight attendant claimed that the iPad was turned in as a lost item. When the passenger got it back, he discovered that Dye had already stored some of her personal information on the tablet. Back in February, a male flight attendant named Jean Paulino stole about $140 and two driver's licenses right off the X-ray machine at a Newark Liberty International Airport security checkpoint. Police arrested the man as he prepared to board a flight to Washington. Turns out, Paulino wasn't even a flight attendant!

6. Southwest Airlines's Got Talent

Most flight attendants are cordial. But if you're lucky, you might fly with a dancing, singing, safety-enforcing triple threat. With beatboxers, rappers, and Elvis impersonators in the crew, Southwest Airlines knows how to keep passengers on the edge of their cramped, hardly adjustable seats. Too bad they don't pass out popcorn...

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]