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Blimp vs. Zeppelin: What's the Difference?

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The Dilemma: You're at a football game and there's a large, cigar-shaped object hovering suspiciously close to you. Question: Is it a blimp or a zeppelin? And more important, why didn't you get better seats?

People You Can Impress: whoever's perched next to you in the nosebleeds.

The Quick Trick: When in doubt, just think of Led Zeppelin. Zeppelins are heavy metal—or at least they've got metal skeletons. Blimps, on the other hand, aren't.

The Explanation: Both blimps and zeppelins work by being lighter than air—they're filled with a gas that's lighter than oxygen, so they go up like hot-air balloons. But balloons can't be steered. Realizing this, German Count (Graf) Ferdinand von Zeppelin decided he wanted to devise a "dirigible [or steerable] balloon" in the 1890s for use in military reconnaissance work. Eventually, these dirigible balloons took the generic name zeppelin and were used as bombers or scout craft through World War I. This was just one of their many uses, however. The airships doubled as a major mode of transportation between the wars, routinely making transatlantic flights, and the enormous Graf Zeppelin even circumnavigated the globe in 1929.

So just how popular were these zeppelins? Well, enough that the spire on the top of the Empire State Building was designed as a docking mast for them, although that idea proved impractical due to the serious updrafts (and besides, who wants to disembark while dangling 1,300 feet over Manhattan?).

Incidentally, anyone who's seen the footage of the Hindenburg incinerating at Lakehurst, N.J., in 1937 can see evidence of the main difference between zeppelins and blimps: zeppelins have rigid metal skeletons, making them suitable for longer trips in a wider variety of weather conditions (which also makes them expensive). Blimps, on the other hand, are simply shaped balloons with fins and an engine. Oh, and as for the name "blimp"? It dates back to 1916 and mimics the sound made when the balloon is thumped with a finger.

Led and Other Zeppelins
Led Zeppelin is to date the greatest band ever named after a flying machine (take that, Jefferson Airplane). The band's name is completely attributable to Keith Moon, the late and eccentric drummer of The Who. The pessimistic Moon thought the band, originally called the New Yardbirds, would "go over like a lead zeppelin." But the plucky young band reveled in the challenge and quickly adopted the name—with a minor change in spelling.

Excerpted from What's the Difference?, which is available in our store.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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