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The Quick 10: 10 Facts About the Concorde

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Wikipedia says March 27, 1970, was first-ever flight of the Concorde. Not the program on HBO, I mean, but the actual jet. I think Wikipedia is wrong (I know, I know, who would have thought?!) "“ British Airways says the first flight occurred on March 2, 1969. Either way, we're in the anniversary month of the first flight, so I thought it would be a good topic for a Q10 (don't worry"¦ the superfluous body parts sequel is still coming).

red arrows1. That little "e" on "Concorde" was a pretty big deal at one point in time. "Concorde" is the French spelling, but U.K. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan got in an argument with Charles de Gaulle and officially had the "e" yanked to spite him. In 1967, Tony Benn, the British Minister for Technology, had it changed back to the original spelling. He said the superfluous letter stood for "Excellence, England, Europe and Entente Cordiale, a 1904 series of agreements between England and France. However, the "E stands for England" theory further ruffled some feathers, because Scotland soon pointed out that Concorde's nose cone was made in Scotland. Benn replied, "It was also "˜E' for Ecosse (French for "Scotland") "“ and I might have added "˜e' for extravagance and "˜e' for escalation as well!"

2. The record time for Paris-to-NY was (and still is) two hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds. On average, the Concorde traveled one mile every two and three quarter seconds. It was so fast that on westbound flights, it was possible to arrive at a local time that was earlier than when you left your original destination. And of course Concorde's publicists didn't miss that opportunity: British Airways used the slogan "Arrive before you leave."

3. At low speeds, it was highly inefficient. It could burn two tons of fuel just taxiing to the runway. However, it was designed to be operated at Mach 2 "“ and when it was, it was the most fuel-efficient jet engine ever built.

4. Concorde could stretch anywhere from 6-10 inches during flight because the heating of the airframe was so intense.

5. You know where you are based on what it's called. OK, you probably know where you are anyway, but go with me here. In the U.S., it's the Concorde. In the U.K., it's simply Concorde. And in France, it's le Concorde (go figure).

6. It was quite noticeable when the Concorde passed through the sound barrier: first of all, the pilot would announce it. But also, there was a surge in acceleration and the air compression was such that the windows would actually get warm to the touch.

accident7. The Concorde had just one major crash, but it was the beginning of the downfall for the supersonic jet. Air France Flight 4590 was headed from Charles de Gaulle in Paris to JFK in New York on July 25, 2000, when a piece of debris on the runway punctured a tire. The tire burst, and a big chunk of it flew up and hit a wing, which ruptured the fuel tank under the landing gear. This led to a fire, which ultimately ended up in the pilots losing control of the plane and crashing into a nearby hotel. There were no survivors, and four people on the ground died as well. Even though this was Concorde's only disaster, it led to flights being grounded for a while so improvements to safety could be made "“ including tires that wouldn't burst and Kevlar-lined fuel tanks. The improvements were tested and the first post-crash passenger flight was made on September 11, 2001. Yep. Obviously, after that, the airline industry suffered. Between that and the public's uncertainty after the 2000 Concorde crash, the customer base was no longer there. Air France and British Airways both announced on April 10, 2003, that they would be ending all Concorde flights and retiring the planes.

8. The last flight from New York to Heathrow in London, was basically an exclusive party. Attendees included Joan Collins, Models Jodie Kidd and Christie Brinkley, British Airways chairman Lord Marshall, the aforementioned Tony Benn, broadcaster Sir David Frost and stock exchange chairman Chris Gibson-Smith. When it left JFK, it flew through water cannons spraying jets of red, white and blue water. When it arrived at Heathrow, it was greeted by 1,000 spectators seated in a grandstand built just for the occasion. The Queen even consented to have Windsor Castle lit up when the last flight flew over it "“ usually, Windsor Castle is only illuminated for visiting dignitaries and heads of state.

9. Pieces and parts of the Concorde have been auctioned off in both France and England "“ everything from the Machmeter to salt and pepper shakers and blankets with the Concorde logo.

conchords10. The band Flight of the Conchords really does take their name from the Concorde. Bret McKenzie has said that he had a dream about flying guitars that looked kind of like Concordes and when he talked to bandmate Jemaine Clement about it, the name "Flight of the Conchords" just happened. Of course, he could be kidding"¦ it sounds suspiciously like Paul McCartney's flaming pie dream that named the Beatles, and they've got the same spelling pun in their name, so"¦

Did any of you ever fly on a Concorde before they were retired? We'd love to hear about it in the comments! And if not (I suspect that's the category most of us fall in), how about this: if you could fly anywhere in three hours, where would you go? Think of the possibilities"¦

Have a good Q10 suggestion for me? Send me a Tweet!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]