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What's the Deal With the Black Box?

I have spent my life on Mars, in a cave, with my fingers in my ears. What, pray tell, is a flight recorder?

Flight recorders are devices used in aircraft to record—you guessed it—flight information, which then may be used to aid any investigations into aircraft accidents or incidents.

There are two common types of flight recorders: flight data recorders (FDR) and cockpit voice recorders (CVR). FDRs record various aircraft performance parameters and operating conditions, such as time, altitude, airspeed, heading, aircraft attitude, flap position, control-column position, fuel flow and even whether the smoke alarms in the lavatory went off. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that older commercial aircraft record a minimum of 11 to 29 parameters, depending on the size of the craft. Newer aircraft (built after 8-19-02) are required to record at least 88 parameters.

CVRs record the audio environment in an aircraft's cockpit, including conversations, ambient sounds and radio communications between the cockpit crew and others.

The FAA requires that the recording duration is a minimum of thirty minutes, and most magnetic-tape CVRs employ a continuous loop of tape that cycles every 30 minutes, recording new material over the old. Sometimes, the two recorders are combined into a single FDR/CVR unit.

Some aircraft also employ a quick access recorder (QAR), which records data on a removable storage device and can be accessed with a more-or-less regular desktop computer (FDRs and CVRs require special equipment to read the recording). QARs are usually scanned during the flight for deviations from normal operations and/or parameters so that problems can be detected and fixed before an accident even occurs.

If they're used to investigate crashes, they must be pretty tough, right?

If I had to rate the toughness of a flight recorder, I'd put it right up there with Bruce Willis in Die Hard and Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. Flight recorders are carefully engineered and constructed to withstand some less than comfortable conditions and usually have an impact tolerance of 3,400 Gs (one G is the g-force acting on a stationary object resting on Earth's surface. It is the force of Earth's gravity and equal to however much that object weighs. In an 3,400-G impact, the flight recorder hits something at a force equal to 3,400 times its own weight). They also have a fire resistance of 2012° F/30 minutes. They can withstand water pressure when submerged up to 20,000 feet underwater and usually have an underwater locator beacon with a six-year shelf life and 30-day operation capability.

The information the recorder gathers is stored within the device on a crash-survivable memory unit protected by aluminum housing, one inch of dry-silica material high-temperature insulation and a ¼-inch thick stainless-steel or titanium cast shell.

For high visibility in wreckage, the outside of flight recorders are coated in heat-resistant, reflective red, yellow or orange paint.

So, if it's painted red, yellow or orange, why is it called the black box?

There are a few theories about that.

The first explanation goes that after an early flight recorder for commercial flights—the "Red Egg"—was unveiled, a journalist pronounced it to be a "wonderful black box."

Another explanation says that when new electronic instruments were being added to Royal Air Force planes during World War II, they were covered in hand-made metal boxes and then painted black to prevent reflection. These electronics came to be collectively known as "black boxes" and the term then made its way into civil aviation and general usage post-war.

Still another explanation has it that the name is simply borrowed. In science and engineering, a "black box" is a device, system or object that can viewed solely in terms of input, output and transfer characteristics without any knowledge of its internal workings.

How do you read a black box and what do you do with the info?

In the United States, after a black box is located, it's usually brought to the computer labs of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Transporting the boxes there is done with the utmost care so no further damage is done to the memory unit. If the plane crashed into a body of water, the black box is usually transported in a cooler of water until it can be handled and disassembled properly.

At the NTSB labs, the black box data is downloaded onto computers equipped with readout systems and analysis software supplied by the black box manufacturers. Extracting the data from a relatively undamaged recorder only takes a few minutes. In the case of a badly dented or burned recorder, the box has to be disassembled and the memory units removed, cleaned and connected to a working recorder.

The data on a CVR is reviewed and interpreted by a team of experts, usually including a representative from the airline involved in the accident, a representative from the airplane manufacturer, an NTSB transportation safety specialist and an NTSB air safety investigator. Meanwhile, the data on an FDR is used by NTSB investigators to reconstruct the events and conditions of the flight (FDRs are also used to analyze aircraft engine performance, the condition of aircraft parts and instruments and air safety issues). These processes can take weeks or even months, but, ideally, provide the investigators with some insight into the final moments of the flight and what caused the accident.

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Big Questions
What Could the Repeal of Net Neutrality Mean for Internet Users?
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What could the repeal of net neutrality mean for the average American internet user?

Zouhair Belkoura:

The imminent repeal of net neutrality could have implications for Americans beyond the Internet’s stratification, increased costs to consumers, and hindered access to content for all. Net neutrality’s repeal is a threat to the Internet’s democracy—the greatest information equalizer of our time.

With net neutrality’s repeal, ISPs could be selective about the content and pricing packages they make available. Portugal is a good example of what a country looks like without net neutrality

What people may not realize is that a repeal of net neutrality would also give ISPs the ability to throttle people’s Internet traffic. Customers won’t likely have visibility into what traffic is being throttled, and it could substantially slow down people’s Internet connections.

What happens when this type of friction is introduced to the system? The Internet—the greatest collective trove of information in the world—could gradually be starved. People who experience slower Internet speeds may get frustrated and stop seeking out their favorite sites. People may also lose the ability to make choices about the content they want to see and the knowledge they seek.

Inflated pricing, less access to knowledge, and slower connections aren’t the only impact a net neutrality repeal might have. People’s personal privacy and corporations’ security may suffer, too. Many people use virtual private networks to protect their privacy. VPNs keep people’s Internet browsing activities invisible to their ISPs and others who may track them. They also help them obscure their location and encrypt online transactions to keep personal data secure. When people have the privacy that VPNs afford, they can access information freely without worrying about being watched, judged, or having their browsing activity bought and sold by third-party advertisers.

Virtual private networks are also a vital tool for businesses that want to keep their company data private and secure. Employees are often required by their employers to connect to a VPN whenever they are offsite and working remotely.

Even the best VPNs can slow down individuals' Internet connections, because they create an encrypted tunnel to protect and secure personal data. If people want to protect their personal privacy or company’s security with a VPN [they] also must contend with ISP throttling; it’s conceivable that net neutrality’s repeal could undermine people’s freedom to protect their online safety. It could also render the protection a VPN offers to individuals and companies obsolete.

Speed has always been a defining characteristic of the Internet’s accessibility and its power. Net neutrality’s repeal promises to subvert this trait. It would compromise both people's and companies’ ability to secure their personal data and keep their browsing and purchasing activities private. When people don’t have privacy, they can’t feel safe. When they don’t feel safe, they can’t live freely. That’s not a world anyone, let alone Americans, want to live in.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Pop Culture
An AI Program Wrote Harry Potter Fan Fiction—and the Results Are Hilarious
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Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

“The castle ground snarled with a wave of magically magnified wind.”

So begins the 13th chapter of the latest Harry Potter installment, a text called Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash. OK, so it’s not a J.K. Rowling original—it was written by artificial intelligence. As The Verge explains, the computer-science whizzes at Botnik Studios created this three-page work of fan fiction after training an algorithm on the text of all seven Harry Potter books.

The short chapter was made with the help of a predictive text algorithm designed to churn out phrases similar in style and content to what you’d find in one of the Harry Potter novels it "read." The story isn’t totally nonsensical, though. Twenty human editors chose which AI-generated suggestions to put into the chapter, wrangling the predictive text into a linear(ish) tale.

While magnified wind doesn’t seem so crazy for the Harry Potter universe, the text immediately takes a turn for the absurd after that first sentence. Ron starts doing a “frenzied tap dance,” and then he eats Hermione’s family. And that’s just on the first page. Harry and his friends spy on Death Eaters and tussle with Voldemort—all very spot-on Rowling plot points—but then Harry dips Hermione in hot sauce, and “several long pumpkins” fall out of Professor McGonagall.

Some parts are far more simplistic than Rowling would write them, but aren’t exactly wrong with regards to the Harry Potter universe. Like: “Magic: it was something Harry Potter thought was very good.” Indeed he does!

It ends with another bit of prose that’s not exactly Rowling’s style, but it’s certainly an accurate analysis of the main current that runs throughout all the Harry Potter books. It reads: “‘I’m Harry Potter,’ Harry began yelling. ‘The dark arts better be worried, oh boy!’”

Harry Potter isn’t the only work of fiction that Jamie Brew—a former head writer for ClickHole and the creator of Botnik’s predictive keyboard—and other Botnik writers have turned their attention to. Botnik has previously created AI-generated scripts for TV shows like The X-Files and Scrubs, among other ridiculous machine-written parodies.

To delve into all the magical fiction that Botnik users have dreamed up, follow the studio on Twitter.

[h/t The Verge]

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