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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Finally! Windows Notepad Is Getting an Update for the First Time in Years
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While some of Window's core programs have evolved dramatically over the years, or disappeared all together, Notepad has remained pretty basic. But as The Verge reports, the text-editing app is about to get a little fancier: Microsoft is updating it for the first time in years.

Since it debuted in 1985, Notepad has become a popular platform for writing out code. One common complaint from programmers working in non-Windows coding language is that Notepad doesn't format line breaks properly, resulting in jumbled, messy text. Now, both Unix/Linux line endings (LF) and Macintosh line endings (CR) are supported in Notepad, making it even more accessible to developers.

For the first time, users can zoom text by holding ctrl and scrolling the mouse wheel. They can also delete the last word in their document by pressing ctrl+backspace. On top of all that, the new update comes with a wrap-around find-and-replace feature, a default status bar with line and column numbers, and improved performance when handling large files.

The arrow keys will be easier to navigate as well. You can now use the arrow keys to deselect text before moving the cursor. And if you ever want to look up a word online, Microsoft will allow you to connect directly to Bing through the app.

The new Notepad update will be made available first to Windows Insiders through Windows 10 Insider Preview, then to everyone on the forthcoming update, codenamed Redstone 5, likely later this year.

[h/t The Verge]

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New Website Lets You Sift Through More Than 700,000 Items Found in Amsterdam's Canals
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Amsterdam's canals are famous for hiding more than eight centuries of history in their mud. From 2003 to 2012, archaeologists had the rare opportunity to dig through an urban river that had been pumped dry, and now 99% Invisible reports that their discoveries are available to browse online.

The new website, dubbed Below the Surface, was released with a book and a documentary of the same name. The project traces the efforts of an archaeological dig that worked parallel to the construction of Amsterdam's new North/South metro line. To bore the train tunnels, crews had to drain part of the River Amstel that runs through the city and dig up the area. Though the excavation wasn't originally intended as an archaeological project, the city used it as an opportunity to collect and preserve some of its history.

About 800 years ago, a trading port popped up at the mouth of the River Amstel and the waterway become a bustling urban hub. Many of the artifacts that have been uncovered are from that era, while some are more contemporary, and one piece dates back to 4300 BCE. All 700,000 objects, which include, toys, coins, and weapons, are cataloged online.

Visitors to the website can look through the collection by category. If you want to view items from the 1500s, for example, you can browse by time period. You also have the option to search by material, like stoneware, for example, and artifact type, like clothing.

After exploring the database, you can learn more about its history in the Below the Surface documentary on Vimeo (English subtitles are coming soon).

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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