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10 Strange Facts About Hot Air Balloons

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You think the Wright Brothers were impressive? Hot air balloons were carrying people through the air almost a century before the Wright Brothers were even born. Here are some oddities from the oldest form of human flight. 

1. A rooster, a duck, and a sheep were the first hot air balloon passengers.

In 1783, the first hot air balloon was set to fly over the heads of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the French court in Versailles. Like monkeys in space, this odd assortment of animals was chosen to test the effects of flight. Sheep, thought to be similar to people, would show the effects of altitude on a land dweller, while ducks and roosters, which could already fly (albeit at different heights), would act as controls in the experiment. The balloon flew on a tether for 8 minutes, rising 1500 feet into the air and traveling 2 miles before being brought safely to the ground. The animals were unharmed. 

2. The first pilots were almost condemned criminals.

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When it came time to choose a pilot for the first hot air balloon flight, Louis XVI didn’t want to be responsible for potential fatalities, so he figured: Hey, condemned criminals are going to die anyway, let’s have them fly the balloon. Luckily, he was talked out of the idea. Instead, scientist Jean-François Pilâtre De Rozier (above) and aristocrat François Laurent d’Arlandes were chosen to fly the balloon. On November 21, 1783, the men flew for 20 minutes, becoming the first people to experience sustained flight.

3. The first pilot was also the first air crash victim.

Following the flight, Rozier became the Charles Lindbergh of his day. Two years later, he decided to break another record by crossing the English Channel in a new kind of balloon, one that was half hot air, half hydrogen. Sadly, 30 minutes after taking off, the balloon exploded. Rozier and his co-pilot were killed, giving him an unfortunate new record: the first person to fly in a balloon, and the first person to die in one.

4. Champagne after flight originated to appease farmers.

As hot air balloons became a fad, French aristocracy soon learned that local farmers didn’t much like rich people setting balloons down on their land. The aristocracy said the peasants were afraid because they thought the balloons looked like dragons, but while the smoke that powered early balloons may have appeared dragon-like, it seems more likely that the farmers didn’t want hot air balloons crushing their crops. In any case, champagne smoothed things over, and a tradition was born.

5. Some believe the Nazca Lines were made with hot air balloons.

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This theory was put forth in the 1970s by Jim Woodman, who said that ancient Peruvians drew the giant figures in the Nazca desert with the help of hot air balloons. Woodman referenced ancient pottery that he thought depicted ballooning, as well as fabric fragments that could have been used as a balloon’s envelope. He even went so far as to make his own balloon using only the resources that would have been available to ancient Peruvians. The theory has been largely discredited, but some still believe balloons had something to do with the Nazca lines. 

6. There was even a balloon duel.

In 1808, two Frenchmen found themselves in a love-triangle with Mademoiselle Tirevit, a celebrated opera dancer, and took to the skies above Paris for a duel. While a crowd gathered below to watch what they thought was a balloon race, the men pulled out blunderbusses and aimed at each other’s balloons. Two shots were fired. One balloon was punctured and crashed to the buildings below, killing its occupants. The other man descended to the ground unharmed, and presumably gained Tirevit’s hand.

7. Hot air balloons were used for war reconnaissance.

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In 1794, during the Battle of Fleurus in the French Revolution, a balloon called Entreprenant was flown for aerial observation to suss out enemy positions during combat. The balloon, which was tethered, flew for 9 hours. During this time, the aeronaut wrote down the movement of Austrian troops and dropped the dispatches to the ground. It’s unclear whether the dispatches helped all that much—the generals were tactfully quiet on the matter—but the French did win the battle.

8. The Civil War had a Balloon Corps.

Established by Abraham Lincoln, the Balloon Corps had seven balloons, at least 12 gas generators, and a flat-top balloon barge that used to be an old steamboat. The balloons, which had names like Intrepid, were used to spy on enemy movement from as far as 15 miles away. Not to be outdone, the Confederates made their own balloon—out of fine dress silk—that was eventually captured by the Union army. The Balloon Corps disbanded in 1863, as it turns out that giant balloons make good targets to shoot at during combat.

9. Smoke balloons were crazy carnival attractions. 

From the 1800s to the 1900s, traveling fairs often featured a daredevil show involving smoke balloons. A stuntman wearing a parachute was attached to a basket-less balloon, which was then held over a fire until very hot. The balloon was released and shot into the air, dragging the stuntman up with it. When the balloon reached the highest point, the stuntman detached, opened the parachute, and descended to the ground again, much to the delight of the crowd below. 

10. Someone invented a glass-bottom balloon.

Imagine floating thousands of feet above the earth with nothing between you and the ground but glass. This is what passengers experienced when Christian Brown debuted his glass-bottom hot air balloon at the 2010 Bristol International Balloon Fiesta. Brown told the British press the flight was “terrifying” and trial flights had ended “with passengers shrieking and screaming in fear.” There’s talk of opening the glass-bottom balloon to the public. Sound fun?

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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]