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How To Fly

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According to aeronautical pioneer (and Wright Brothers' arch-nemesis) Glenn Hammond Curtiss



Do Get Into Bicycle Repair
It's easy to forget, but biking was a high-tech, geeky hobby around the turn of the 20th century. Chains, gears, and rotors formed the backbone of brand new field of motor engine development and adaptations in lighter, more aerodynamic bike construction gave a boost to would-be flyboys. In fact, you might say that bike repair was to airplane invention what hacking would one day be to the creation of the home computer. In that train of thought, the Bill Gates of biking was definitely New Yorker Glenn Hammond Curtiss. A champion cyclist and self-taught mechanic, Curtiss spent the first few years of the 20th century designing the world's best racing bikes and light, powerful motorcycle engines. Then he went into the airplane business and ended up the most praised and simultaneously reviled figure in the history of flight. He also ended up filthy rich.
Don't Be Afraid to Be the Bad Guy
Curtiss moustache-twirling reputation began in 1906 with a fateful (some might say, mercenary) visit to the Wright Brothers' Dayton, Ohio workshop. Technically, Curtiss was just in Dayton for the state fair where he was helping a friend demonstrate some dirigibles. But after the Wrights helped corral a particularly feisty airship, the three bonded over their mutual interest in flying machines and headed back to the Wright's place for a guided tour. Although they'd flown at Kitty Hawk three years previous, the Wrights were still knee-deep in the patent process and wouldn't show off their plane. However, they did discuss the flier's mechanics in enough detail that when Curtiss suddenly became an airplane entrepreneur a year later, the Wrights sued him.

Do Justify Bad Behavior with Good Technology
A lot of historical accounts begin and end with Curtiss' bad boy side. But, here at mental_floss, we are objective and, thus, willing to point out that, whether or not he stole his original ideas from the Wrights, Curtiss was hands-down the better innovator. Case in point: First flight. The Wrights' 1903 jaunt at Kitty Hawk was a success, as we all know. But just barely. Only a couple feet off the ground, the Wrights managed cover only a few hundred feet in distance and couldn't stay airborne longer than a minute before crash-landing. In comparison, Curtiss made the first public flight in U.S. history in 1908, behind the controls of his "June Bug" plane. He flew for over a mile and won the Scientific American Trophy. The next year, he went up against the Wrights at the first international aviation exposition in France. They brought three different planes and were expected to dominate the event. But Curtiss' one plane ended up besting them in every category. He went on to start the first airplane manufacturing company, design the first hydroplane, and make the first plane capable of taking off and landing on a ship.

Don't Let Old Feuds Stand in the Way of Future Profits
Shortly after his public success with the June Bug, Curtiss got a letter from the Wrights "reminding" him that if he were going to commercially manufacture airplanes, he'd need to pay them a cut. Curtiss apparently filed the letter in the waste bin, thus touching off nine years of increasingly hostile litigation. Curtiss' legal battles with the Wright Company even outlasted the Wrights themselves; after Wilbur's early death, Orville Wright sold his share of their company in 1915. The Curtiss/Wright conflict wasn't resolved until 1917, when the U.S. government simplified their World War I manufacturing by pooling all aircraft patents into one, thus nullifying the Wright Company's claims for restitution. With this forced peace, Curtiss and the Wright Company joined forces. Today, Curtiss-Wright still designs engines and components for aircraft and spacecraft.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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