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True Crimes: The Man Who Hijacked a Cargo Jet

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Airplane hijackings were not uncommon in 1994, but usually such extreme actions were undertaken by fringe terrorist groups with a political statement to make, and who usually used a large passenger jet to make said statement. It's no wonder, then, that the Memphis Tower requested clarification more than once as to what airline was declaring an emergency due to an attempted takeover on April 7. Federal Express? A cargo plane? It was strange, but true.

The Perpetrator

Picture 282.pngAuburn Calloway worked as a pilot for FedEx, but he had fudged his resume a bit and had greatly embellished his flying experience while serving in the U.S. Navy. When he was scheduled for a disciplinary hearing he panicked, assuming that he'd be fired. He launched a pre-emptive strike at the company that he thought was unfairly singling him out and decided to, in one fell swoop, both provide for his family and punish FedEx. His plan was to hijack a FedEx flight by attacking the crew with a hammer, then take control of the plane and crash into the Memphis headquarters of the company. By using a hammer as a weapon, autopsies on the remains would only show blunt-force trauma, which would be typical in an airplane collision. Thus, no suspicion would fall back on Calloway and his beneficiaries would receive the full amount of the many hundreds of thousands of dollars of life insurance he'd recently purchased.

The Crime

Calloway boarded FedEx flight 705 as a "jump seat" passenger — a perk allowed to FedEx employees when there was ample space. The only baggage he'd brought aboard was a guitar case. When the flight crew boarded, they were surprised to see Calloway already on board and initiating pre-flight procedures. They said nothing, however, and he relinquished the engineer's chair and settled in the jump seat.

Less than 30 minutes into the flight, Calloway opened his guitar case and produced a claw hammer, which he used to rain blows on the heads of Captain David Sanders, First Officer Jim Tucker and Flight Engineer Andy Peterson. What Calloway hadn't counted on was the tenacity of that flight crew; despite gaping head wounds that penetrated their skulls and caused partial paralysis, the three men fought back. Two of them physically wrestled the hammer from Calloway, who retreated temporarily and then returned with a spear gun. Tucker, his right side completely paralyzed, managed to pull the control yoke to his chest with his left hand, causing the jet to go into a barrel roll (at 400 miles per hour!). That maneuver threw Calloway off-balance and allowed Sanders and Peterson to tackle him and hold him down. The DC-10 went into a dive at over 500 mph, something the craft was not designed to do, but somehow Tucker, with only one working hand, managed to pull out of the dive and radio the tower with an emergency call. The tower thought it had misunderstood; "say again?" it radioed the pilot, not understanding how a cargo plane could be undergoing an attempted takeover.

The Aftermath

FedEx 705 was ultimately cleared for landing on any runway it could manage. Thanks to the heroic efforts of the flight crew, not only did the plane land safely, they also managed to keep Auburn Calloway subdued until authorities boarded the craft in Memphis and arrested him. Due to the severity of their head injuries, David Sanders, Jim Tucker and Andy Peterson were permanently grounded and never flew again. Auburn Calloway was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He is currently serving his time in a California prison and protests his conviction via his website. [Note: Page no longer available.]

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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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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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