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Plane vs. Conveyer Belt: Hell Yeah the Plane Takes Off

UPDATE: Well, that'll teach me to blog about physics I don't fully understand! I have researched the issue and edited the post below, now that I understand the explanation from The Straight Dope.

Last night the Discovery show Mythbusters settled a longstanding debate: whether an airplane on a conveyor belt (running in the opposite direction as the plane) can take off. The short answer, as liveblogged by Jason Kottke:

HELL YEAH THE PLANE TAKES OFF

It's a curious problem. As a thought experiment, it seems (at least to me) like the plane shouldn't take off, since it wouldn't gain takeoff velocity relative to the ground. But according to, you know, SCIENCE, the plane will still reach takeoff velocity -- the wheels will just spin twice as fast. This is because the wheels aren't providing any thrust, it's the engines (propellors) that are pulling the plane forward through the air. It's the velocity of the air relative to the wings that counts, which is generated by the action of the engines pulling the plane forward. So the conveyor belt will only stop the plane from gaining takeoff velocity if it creates enough friction to counteract the forward thrust of the engines (or propellor).

Despite explanations of this sort by physicists, the issue wasn't really settled until last night's Mythbusters episode -- they replicated the experiment on a small scale, then with a real airplane (albeit an ultralight), using a huge tarp dragged by a truck as the "conveyor belt." Even the plane's pilot thought the plane wouldn't overcome the power of the conveyor belt, and thus wouldn't gain takeoff velocity. When Jason Kottke first blogged about the issue last February, his comment thread was hot with controversy. So Kottke tuned in to Mythbusters last night and liveblogged the event, with results visible above. His exuberance over the plane's liftoff has resulted in a "HELL YEAH THE PLANE TAKES OFF" tee-shirt available starting at $18. Wow.

Watch the Mythbusters clip in question below.... (Note: if this clip is pulled down, I'll try to dig up another.)

Keep in mind that the issue here is partly semantic, and has to do with how you explain the theoretical problem. I explained it poorly in my first post, since I (like apparently many) assumed that air would flow over the wings as a result of the propellor spinning, and that would be enough to make the plane take off, even if it was stationary. This is not the case -- the plane is going to need to move air over its wings in order to take off. The point of the experiment is simply that yes, the plane will move despite the conveyer belt underneath it. And that movement (at least in this experiment) provided sufficient lift to get the plane off the ground.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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