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12 Highlights From Flying First Class on the World's Swankiest Airlines

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This week, a flight from Newark to Denver had to be diverted because two passengers got in a fight over a reclining seat. It's a testament to the state of domestic economy class that most people I talked to about this weren't surprised—this type of thing was bound to happen.

Sure, complaining about air travel is the Soliloquy Of The Privileged; no one wants to hear about how your satellite TV feed went out or how you had to spend a whole three hours sitting upright and not splayed about like some boneless child. Still, no one would turn down the chance to melt into a full reclining seat and have total privacy on a flight.

You can get this via the first class cabins of international airlines, although this alternative will set you back a few thousand big ones. Those of us who aren't petrol magnates will probably never get the chance to experience these kinds of perks at 35,000 feet. Instead, we'll have to live vicariously through those who are lucky enough to fly on the world's swankiest carriers and who have documented their experiences.

1. Emirates Airlines (Airbus A380; Bangkok to Hong Kong)

Highlights: The shower! Our gracious video host films himself taking a shower mid-flight, which is equal parts insane, mind-boggling, and wonderful.

2. Cathay Pacific (Boeing 777; Hong Kong to Chicago)

Highlights: Cathay was recently named "World's Best Airline," so that must be neat for them. The pre-flight champagne is a nice touch, and so is the personalized hand-written card that comes with the first course wishing the passenger a Happy New Year.

3. Swiss International Airlines (Airbus A330; Zurich to Boston)

Highlights: Free pajamas are a great souvenir, although something tells me first class passengers flying to Zurich can afford PJs.

4. Asiana Airlines (Boeing 747; Incheon to Frankfurt)

Highlights: Here's just some of the food you get to shove down your pampered gullet: Caviar, peppered tuna with carrot-chive slaw, pickled mushroom and chickpea salad, chicken soup with a risotto ball, sorbet, veal tenderloin with lobster, a fruit and cheese plate, and dessert pastries. Keep in mind, that's just one meal. Passengers also get breakfast and lunch if the flight is long enough.

5. All Nippon Airways (Boeing 777; Chicago to Tokyo)

Highlights: Your seat is inside a self-contained little box made with modular pop-out units for entertainment features, charging stations, and storage. You also get a pretty damn big TV.

6. Garuda Indonesia (Boeing 777; Tokyo to Jakarta)

Highlights: Caviar, a nice wine list, and a fully-stocked bathroom kit with like 56 different types of lotions.

7. Etihad Airways (Boeing 777; Abu Dhabi to Sydney)

Highlights: An ornate sliding door provides privacy for each first class passenger. Also, the roof of the cabin transforms into a digital star map at night, which is haunting and seems like something straight out of The Fifth Element's Fhloston Paradise.

8. Singapore Airlines (Airbus A380; Singapore to Melbourne)

Highlights: Turndown service. C'mon.

9. Lufthansa (Airbus A340; Munich to San Francisco)

Highlights: A single rose sits in your armrest's built-in vase. Remember that next time you're jostling your seatmate for elbowroom on the way to Ft. Lauderdale.

10. Qantas (Airbus A380; Melbourne to Dubai)

Highlights: Double-decker A380s have tail-mounted cameras, meaning you can watch take-off or landing on your flatscreen TV from that incredible vantage point (skip to around 15:50).

11. EVA Air (Boeing 777; London to Bangkok)

Highlights: The framed artwork is a nice touch, even if it looks like it belongs in a divorce lawyer's beach house.

12. Thai Airlines (Airbus A380; Frankfurt to Bangkok)

Highlights: Your meals are prepared fresh next to your seat. You may have to bring aboard your own little bag of pretzels if you want that, though.

BONUS: Qatar Airlines (Boeing 787 Dreamliner; Doha to Frankfurt)

While not technically "first" class, this footage comes from an all-business class 787 Dreamliner. This is the newest and nicest passenger jet you can fly, and the features are ridiculous. The armrest magically rises from the console, which is totally unnecessary but that's all part of the joy. The windows are huge on the 787, and you won't find a pull-down shade here; you can control the tint from your digital control handset. It's like transition lenses, except not embarrassing. The toilets "auto-flush" and the bathroom has a window, which is ingenious—there's no reason all plane lavatories shouldn't feature this. Who's going to spy on you? Superman? That guy's a wuss. Oh, and the seatbelts have airbags.

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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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May 23, 2017
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