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5 Special Ways to Fly

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No self-respecting canine travels to a luxurious spa in the cargo bay of a 757, so it was only a matter of time before an airline that caters exclusively to pets arrived. Here's the story of recently launched Pet Airways and four other companies that provide specialty air travel.

1. Pet Airways

Pet Airways began service to five U.S. cities last week, offering first class pet travel for as low as $149 on Beech 1900 planes that have been stripped of their human furnishings. Dogs and cats travel in carriers in the main cabin; humans, save for the pilot and pet attendants, must travel separately. Alysa Binder and her husband, Dan Wiesel, began planning the launch of Pet Airways in 2005 after they had an unpleasant experience traveling with their Jack Russell Terrier on a cross-country flight. Pet Airways passengers "“ pawsengers and catengers is the company lingo "“ must check in at least 2 hours prior to departure and are generally not fed during flights. The company provides service to and from the New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles areas and appears poised to prosper with flights already booked solid for the next 2 months.

2. MedJet Assist

medjetsMedJet Assist is a program that provides medical evacuation assistance to members who are injured or become ill while traveling. An annual individual MedJet Assist membership costs $250, while a family membership costs $385. Short-term packages from 1 to 4 weeks are also available. Members who are hospitalized more than 150 miles away from home can fly to a hospital of their choice on one of MedJet's specially equipped planes, regardless of the reason for their hospitalization. Though membership isn't cheap, it beats the alternative should you need medical evacuation assistance while abroad. A single transatlantic evacuation may cost more than $100,000.

3. OpenSkies

open-skiesIt's all business, all the time on OpenSkies Airlines, which was founded in 2008 as a subsidiary of British Airways. The OpenSkies fleet consists of four Boeing 757s, each with two business class options: Business Bed or Business Seat. OpenSkies currently offers daily flights between New York and Paris and Amsterdam. News broke last week that British Airways is seeking a buyer for the subsidiary, which has struggled financially since its launch. If OpenSkies goes under, it would join EOS, MAXJet, and Silverjet among the list of business-class airlines that have failed since 2007. Silverjet claimed to be the world's first carbon neutral airline, with mandatory carbon offset contributions included in the price of every ticket.

4. Air New Zealand

air-nzAir New Zealand makes this list because it specializes in innovation, one of the keys to keeping loyal customers and luring new ones during tough economic times. The airline recently filmed an in-flight safety demonstration video featuring employees wearing nothing but body paint that was carefully applied to resemble their regular uniforms. Beginning in October, Air New Zealand will offer a Matchmaking Flight from Los Angeles to Auckland to facilitate the love connection between Americans and Kiwis. Former Bachelor star Jason Mesnick and his girlfriend, Molly Malaney, will be guests on the inaugural flight. Matchmaking Flight packages, which include tickets to a matchmaking ball to be held in Auckland's SkyTower, start at $780 round trip.

5. FlyMeNow

fly-me-nowBased in England, FlyMeNow arranges private travel on charter flights for the person who needs to get somewhere fast and/or in style. The company, which was founded in 2007 and earns a mention here for its punchy name and impressive network of aircraft, has access to thousands of helicopters, turboprops, and private jets. It offers charters to virtually anywhere, including otherwise inaccessible locations for extreme sports enthusiasts and remote islands in the Caribbean. Among the company's many happy customers are the Red Hot Chilli Pipers "“ and no, that's not a typo. The bagpipe-playing rock band won the BBC One show When Will I Be Famous in 2008 and turned to FlyMeNow after booking multiple gigs on the same day during its ensuing tour. FlyMeNow also arranged travel for Bon Jovi during the band's recent South America tour.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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