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11 Things We No Longer See on Airplanes

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Traveling by airplane is a lot different than it used to be. And we’re not just talking about the elaborate and cumbersome security restrictions that get added every time some wacko sticks a bomb in his BVDs. There used to be a lot of amenities, but they were gradually eliminated after President Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978 and cost-effectiveness suddenly became a corporate concern. Here are 11 things that we never see on most commercial flights today that were common in days of yore. 

1. Sleeping Berths

In the late 1940s, the Boeing Stratocruiser was described by the company as being “just like the magic carpet.” Besides a beautifully appointed ladies’ lounge and reclining springy club chairs, every seat in the main cabin (not just First Class) could be adjusted and manipulated to form enough sleeping berths (above) to accommodate each passenger.

2. Pong

In the early 1980s, Continental Airlines outfitted some of their DC-10s with what they called a “Pub” configuration.  Besides a walk-up wet bar and circular tables surrounded by swivel chairs, the Pub area also included a two-player Pong game…which was probably cutting-edge gaming technology at the time.

3. Champagne in Coach

In the 1970s, Southern Airways billed itself as “Route of the Aristocrats” due to its policy of offering First Class touches to every passenger. The company probably needed those cushy pillows and free-flowing booze to take the edge off of its multi-stop routes; even though it did eventually offer some non-stop flights, Southern’s bread-and-butter was air service throughout the southeastern states. A typical flight might have originated in Albany, Georgia, then stopped in Valdosta, Dothan (Alabama), and Columbus before it finally landed at its final destination of Atlanta.

4. Table-side Meat Carving

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Pan Am’s 707 Clippers used to offer restaurant-quality meals served seatside by an on-board chef on their Trans-Atlantic flights.

5. Pianos

From 1970 to about 1974, American Airlines featured a piano lounge in the rear of their 747s. The instrument in question was a Wurlitzer electric piano that required frequent repairs due to over-enthusiastic music lovers spilling their cocktails on the keys. What could be more relaxing on a cross-country flight than a gaggle of intoxicated folks singing “Shine On Harvest Moon” off-key?

6. Flight Attendants in Hot Pants

Some changes are for the better.

7. Fresh Cut Flower Arrangements

Pan Am’s 707 Clipper was advertised as being “vibration-free,” so they could afford to have fresh flower arrangements on every tray table and not worry about the contents being spilled into a passenger’s lap during turbulence. Pan Am continued to provide vased flowers during dinner service in First Class until the late 1970s.

8. In-Flight Fashion Shows

What’s worse than having a toddler kick the back of your seat non-stop during a six-hour flight? Having to look at flight attendants in the same drab uniforms throughout the journey. Or so thought the brass at Braniff International in 1965. To add an extra-colorful coating to their in-flight eye candy, they hired fashion designer Emilio Pucci to create a versatile and colorful quick-change uniform for the air hostesses. Flight attendants welcomed passengers aboard in one outfit, then changed to another for the meal service, and then stripped down to oh-so-sexy culottes for the “let me change into something more comfortable to help you relax” portion of the flight.

9. Peruvian Art

Speaking of Braniff, the fashion-forward airline also hired New Mexico architect Alexander Girard to brighten up their fleet. Girard incorporated a monochromatic color scheme in which each plane was painted one color, from a palette that featured selections such as Metallic Purple and Lemon Yellow. When the company expanded their routes into Latin America, authentic art pieces from Brazil, Mexico and Peru were added as finishing touches inside the aircraft.

10. A Window at the End of Each Row of Seats

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The size, shape and placement of the windows on a plane are carefully designed to maintain the structural integrity of the aircraft. Windows that are too large would require a much higher level of pressurization in the cabin air. Rounded corners are less likely to develop fatigue cracks, and the space between windows is engineered so that the fuselage still remains sturdy. The windows are installed into the plane while it is still an empty shell, and are normally designed for a particular seat configuration and “pitch” (the distance from any seat to the exact point on the seat in front of or behind it).

In the good ol’ days, the standard seat pitch in Economy Class was 34 inches, but today the average is closer to 31 inches. Once an airline buys a craft, they’re free to configure the seats inside however they please, and these days that means “crowded.” Seats are revenue-generators, so over the years companies have added more rows inside their planes, which means that sometimes even when you’re assigned an official window seat, you might get just a sliver of glass at the back of your shoulder.

11. A Seat Assignment in 22I

Or any row with an “I” designation. Watch the seat numbers the next time you’re tripping down the aisle on a wide-bodied plane—they usually run “HJK”. Why no "I"? Blame computers. When airlines started installing computer equipment to handle their reservations and other records, problems were often created when a letter too closely resembled a numeral. Digital Equipment Corporation was the first company to eliminate confusing letters (in automobile VIN numbers, for example, not only the I but also O, Q, and S were nixed) and as a result such an alphanumeric system is now referred to as the DEC Alphabet. 

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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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Stephen Missal
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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