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11 Amazing Reader-Submitted Air Travel Facts

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Last month, while Jason was flying home from Chicago, he asked readers to submit their most amazing facts related to air travel.

We've combed through the submissions, fact-checked our favorites, and picked 11 winners. The winners will be contacted via e-mail so they can receive the mental_floss T-shirts of their choice.

And the winners are...

Amy Gardner McNeal:

Seventy-five thousand engineering drawings were used to produce the first Boeing 747.

Ken:

The song YYZ by Rush is named after the airport identification code for Lester B. Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. They chose that code because seeing it on their airline tags means they are finally coming home after months upon months on tour.

Dina:

In 1987, American Airlines eliminated one olive from each salad served in first class. This saved them $40,000.

Heather:

According to U.S. News & World Report, the longest commercial flight by duration is Los Angeles to Singapore on Singapore Airlines. It clocks in at 18 hours and 30 minutes and takes more time than the Newark-Singapore flight which is 800 miles longer but saves time by going over the north pole and experiencing less wind resistance.

Jenn:

Niek Vermeulen has the world's largest collection of airsickness bags (6,016).

Devdoggy:

Gliding was an exhibition in Berlin at the Olympics in 1936, and it was planned to be an Olympic sport in the next Olympics.

Tim:

Dallas's [DFW] airport is bigger than the island of Manhattan.

Moniker:

Little known fact, Penn Jillette, of Penn & Teller, was the first person to ride / float [the famous "Vomit Comet" anti-gravity flight] completely nude. Also joining him that day for the ride was Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top.

Competitivesleeper:

Vesna Vulovic holds the world record for surviving the highest fall. She was a flight attendant who was in a plane that was bombed at over 30,000 feet. Although severely injured she was the only survivor.

Teresak33:

As a ginger I'm thrilled to report there is an airport in Ebro Florida named Redhead Airport.

Steven:

To fly from Chicago O'Hare to Chicago Midway, you have to make a connecting flight and use at least two airlines. The shortest route is O'Hare-Milwaukee-Midway.

Congratulations, everyone! Go check out our t-shirt collection here.

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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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