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6 Feats of Aerial Photography Before the Airplane

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The first aerial photographers didn’t wait for the invention of the airplane. There were other ways of getting a camera up in the air, with or without a human operator.

1. Balloons

In 1783, Etienne Montgolfier ascended in a hot air balloon, making him the first human to see the Earth from the air. But he didn’t have any snapshots to show for it. Photography didn’t exist yet.

It wasn’t until 1858 that Gaspar-Felix Tournachon, known as "Nadar," rose 80 meters above the French village of Petit-Becetre in a tethered balloon to produce the first aerial photograph. It was an astounding feat, considering what taking a photo entailed back then.

Photography had progressed since Nicéphore Niépce produced the first lasting image in 1826, but Nadar couldn’t simply snap a roll of film and drop it off at a drug store to be developed. In fact, the then state-of-the-art collodion wet-plate process involved applying emulsion onto glass plates just before exposure and developing them quickly afterwards. He had to carry a complete darkroom in the basket of the balloon.

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Unfortunately Nadar’s earliest aerial images no longer survive. The oldest existing aerial photo is this one of Boston, taken from a balloon in 1860 by James Wallace Black. 

2. Free flying balloons

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The invention of the dry-plate process allowed faster exposures and made it unnecessary to carry so much equipment aloft. According to the Professional Aerial Photographers Association (PAPA), Triboulet took the first free-flight photographs over Paris in 1879.

This aerial view of Paris was taken by Alphonse Liébert in 1889.

3. Kites

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The invention of the electrically released shutter in 1869 meant that photographers on the ground could control high-flying cameras. Using a string of kites with a camera attached to the last, English meteorologist E. D. Archibald became one of the first to successfully photograph from kites in about 1882. In 1889, Arthur Batut suspended a large camera from a single kite. A slow burning fuse triggered the shutter soon after the kite was launched.

The above photo is the French village of Labruguière photographed from kite by Arthur Batut in 1889.

4. Panoramic photos from kites

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George R. Lawrence designed a large-format camera with a curved film plate for capturing panoramas. The hefty, bulky camera required 17 kites to lift it 2000 feet into the air. His photos of the devastation following the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco are still some of the largest aerial exposures ever taken.

5. Pigeons

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The Bavarian Pigeon Corps was already using carrier pigeons to transmit messages in 1903 when Julius Neubranner patented a miniature camera that could be strapped to a bird. It was set to snap pictures every 30 seconds as the pigeon flew. 

6. Rockets

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Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel is best known for inventing dynamite and for establishing the prizes that bear his name, but in 1897 he was the first to successfully produce an aerial photograph with a rocket-mounted camera. In Germany in 1906, Albert Maul obtained aerial photos from a more reliable rocket propelled by compressed air. When the camera reached 2600 feet, the shutter would snap and the camera would be ejected and parachuted to the ground. Maul kept tinkering with rocket-cameras, but by 1912 airplanes had taken over as the way to get cameras airborne.

The above photo is an aerial shot of the Swedish village Karlskoga taken by Alfred Nobel's rocket in 1896 or 1897. 

Sources:  PAPA International, “History of Aerial Photography”; Lenman, Robin, ed., Oxford Companion to the Photograph; Marien, Mary Warner, 100 Ideas That Changed Photography.

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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]