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7 Burning Questions About Air Travel

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Why must your seat be returned to the upright position? What happens to all the stuff confiscated by security officials? Here are answers to all your burning questions about air travel.

1. Why Must Your Seat Be Returned to the Upright Position?

"Put your seat in the upright position, make sure any carry-on luggage is placed under the seat, and stow away your tray table." Why does any of this matter? Note that these instructions pertain specifically to the period during which the aircraft is either taking off or landing. Should an emergency occur during either of these times, passengers often have a good chance of survival if they evacuate the plane immediately. Milliseconds count in these situations, so passengers are naturally in a rush when finding their way to an emergency exit. Coach passengers know how difficult squeezing out of a seat mid-flight just to get to the lavatory can be; now imagine that the cabin is filled with smoke and visibility is near zero. Reclined seats, extended table trays and briefcases in the aisle will cause already panicked folks to stumble and fall and hamper the evacuation process.

2. What Happens to Items Confiscated by Security Officials Prior to Boarding?

confiscate.jpgIt depends upon individual airline policy. If there is enough time left before boarding, passengers usually have the option of packing the forbidden item into their checked luggage or running outside to stash it in their car. If time has run out for that solution, passengers can request that the airline send the item to "lost and found" so they can claim it upon their return. However, there are no guarantees that they'll be reunited with their keepsake. The majority of confiscated items ultimately end up in an industrial-sized incinerator or trash compactor.

These days, the most common items accidentally left behind at airport screening terminals are personal computers. Security regulations require that they be removed from their cases for inspection, and many harried travelers simply grab the empty case as they rush to catch a plane. Denver International Airport once posted "Got Laptop?" reminder signs after they collected 95 of the devices in only 30 days.

3. Where Do Airport Codes Come From?

Some airport codes are easy enough to decipher; Boston is BOS, Miami is MIA, and Salt Lake City is SLC. But what about some of the more unusual codes? Why is Chicago ORD and New Orleans MSY? The names become less mysterious if you know some history about the airports. For example, before Chicago's airport was named after Butch O'Hare, it was called Orchard Airport. New Orleans' code is derived from the property's original purpose "“ Moisant Stock Yards.

The FAA began to issue three-letter identifying codes to airports back in the early 1930s. The oldest airports were simply designated by their official weather station code, with the letter "X" added to the end. So the Los Angeles Airport became LAX, Phoenix was PHX, and so on.

Incidentally, that tiny sand dune in Kitty Hawk where the Wright Brothers made their first flight has its own location identifier: FFA, for First Flight Airport.

4. What Are the Hottest Selling Items at Airport Shops?

Sometimes it's a regional thing. Miami International is the nation's largest airport retailer of Spanish-language books. Decorative Western saddles (which sell for upwards of $2,000 each) are very popular with international travelers who pass through Dallas/Ft. Worth International. But in 2006 one particular item was selling out at airport newsstands across the country: mechanical pencils. Closer study revealed that the pencil passion was caused by the Sudoku craze. Passengers liked to fritter away their flying time with the popular number puzzles, and most airplanes don't come equipped with pencil sharpeners.

5. Are Pilots Allowed to Chat?

oveur-2.jpgA "sterile cockpit" has nothing to do with the cleanliness of the flight crew. Sterile cockpit is an FAA rule that requires pilots to refrain from non-essential conversation during critical phases of flight (usually any time below 10,000 feet). Airline pilots like to chit-chat while on the job just like anyone else. It's only natural that a task they perform thousands of times becomes automatic and a little gossip while breezing through them would make the process less mundane. However, prior to take-off, the FAA prefers that cockpit personnel have their minds 100% on the task at hand. Any extraneous conversation could conceivably distract the crew and ultimately cost lives. Take, for example, Delta Flight 1141. According to the CVR, prior to takeoff, a flight attendant stepped inside the cockpit, and the group proceeded to discuss their favorite cocktails and the dating habits of other employees while simultaneously running the pre-flight checklist. The NTSB determined that the crew was distracted and failed to properly configure the flaps and slats, which caused the plane to crash shortly after takeoff.

6. When Did Airports Beef Up Security?

Airport security was virtually non-existent until a rash of hijackings occurred in the early 1970s. In December 1972, the FAA issued an ultimatum: all U.S. airports had one month to install the necessary equipment and procedures to ensure that each and every passenger and bag would be properly screened.

The first metal detectors used at most airports were large, clumsy devices called magnetometers. These machines were originally designed for the logging industry.

(If a piece of metal is present in a log, it can severely damage the saw, so the magnetometer was devised to prevent saw mill shutdowns.) Unlike the door-frame design of today's metal detectors, the original magnetometers were tunnels about five feet long. Passengers walked up one ramp to enter the device, and down another to exit.

7. What's So Bad About Living Near an Airport? (You Know, Besides the Noise and Traffic.)

Just like prisons and meat processing plants, airports suffer from "Not In My Backyard" syndrome. However, it's not just the noise and traffic that make living near an airport undesirable; the construction of an airfield can actually change an area's weather patterns. Because expansive areas of land have to be flattened out, the surrounding tracts may suddenly become more susceptible to fog. The miles of pavement necessary for taxiways and runways can also change drainage patterns, which may lead to problems with flooding and soil erosion.

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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]