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Jacqueline Nell/Disneyland Resort via Getty Images

11 Places Planes Can't Fly Over in the U.S.

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Jacqueline Nell/Disneyland Resort via Getty Images

From the obvious to the controversial to the mysterious, here are 11 places in the U.S. over which taking a plane just won’t fly.

1. George Washington's Home // Mount Vernon, Virginia

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George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Restriction: Surface to 1500 feet above Mean Sea Level.

I cannot tell a lie: Flying over Mount Vernon, the home of the Father of our Country, is a big no-no. The wooden mansion, built for George Washington between 1758 and 1778, has endured much wear over the years, and in an effort to prevent further damage caused by vibrations from overhead aircraft, a no-fly zone was established around the airspace above the National Historic Landmark. As a result of this restriction, even aerial photography of the home is rarely allowed.

2. and 3. Walt Disney World // Orlando, Florida and Disneyland // Anaheim, California

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Disneyland park during a ceremony at Sleeping Beauty Castle
Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland Resort via Getty Images

Restriction: 3000 feet above ground level.

Restrictions on airspace are sometimes made on a temporary basis, usually at places where a great many people congregate (like the Super Bowl). And perhaps no place attracts larger crowds with more frequency than Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resorts. After the September 11 attacks, Disney successfully had a “temporary” no-fly zone restriction slipped into a nearly $400 billion federal spending bill in 2003, which established the restricted airspace over its Anaheim and Orlando theme parks. The restriction remains in place to this day, and has faced legal challenges from a Christian group, the Family Policy Network. The group has argued on free speech grounds for the right to use the airspace to tow banners behind small planes in opposition to Disney’s unofficial but popular annual “Gay Days.”

4. Bush Family compound// Kennebunkport, Maine

Restriction: Surface to 1000 feet above Mean Sea Level.

The Bush family compound is located on a peninsula known as Walker’s Point in the scenic southern Maine town of Kennebunkport. The home has been in the family for over a century, and is the summer residence of former president George H.W. Bush. Over the years many important people have been through its doors, including Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher, and it has been the scene of numerous Bush family weddings. Given the sensitive nature of the compound, and the frequency with which both former presidents Bush and their families still visit, the airspace above the compound is restricted to aircraft.

5. Pantex Nuclear facility // Amarillo, Texas

Restriction: Surface to 4800 feet above Mean Sea Level.

The Pantex Plant is a high-security nuclear facility located about 17 miles northeast of Amarillo, Texas. Its mission is “to ensure the safety, security and reliability of the nation's nuclear stockpile." The facility dismantles excess nukes, keeps tabs on our existing ones, and maintains cold-war era missiles that are still knocking around after all these years, and therefore there is a ten-mile no-fly zone around it. As you might expect, the site is also closed to the public.

6. Washington, D.C.

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Aerial photo of the Washington Memorial with the Capitol in the background
Andy Dunaway/USAF via Getty Images

Restriction: Surface to 18000 feet above Mean Sea Level.

After the September 11 attacks, the airspace over our nation’s capital became some of the most highly restricted in the world. The Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Homeland Security together established concentric no-fly areas around Washington D.C. The outer ring of this boundary, known as the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) requires any aircraft entering the space to identify themselves. Within that zone exists a smaller area of 15 nautical miles around Reagan International Airport called the Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ). They don’t mess around in that FRZ, either. In 2005, the pilot of a Cessna 150 aircraft was just five miles from the White House before it was greeted by the sight of an F-16 fighter jet dropping flares in its field of vision to send a signal it had wandered into unfriendly skies. Oops.

7. Camp David // Thurmont, Maryland

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Camp David, Maryland
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Restriction: Surface to 5000 feet above Mean Sea Level.

Countless photographs of U.S. presidents in windbreakers have been taken at Naval Support Facility Thurmont, better known as Camp David, a presidential retreat and meeting place going back to Franklin D. Roosevelt. The compound has frequently played host to presidents’ families and visiting dignitaries, and numerous high-profile pacts have been struck at the retreat over the years, including the Camp David Accords, a peace deal between Egypt and Israel brokered in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. Due to the high-profile nature of the visitors and activities at Camp David, the airspace above the private compound has a three-mile no-fly zone around it.

8. Kennedy Space Center // Merritt Island, Florida

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space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from Launch pad at Kennedy Space Center
NASA via Getty Images

Restriction: surface to 5000 feet above Mean Sea Level, adjustable to unlimited with notice.

Florida’s “Space Coast” is a popular spot for space fans to see a rocket launch, but the only view you’re going to get is from the ground. Merritt Island houses NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Due to military and NASA activities on and around the island, airspace around the island is restricted to all civilian and commercial air traffic.

9. Area 51

Restriction: Surface to Unlimited.

Located in the western United States desert is the fabled Area 51. Its precise location is either in Nellis Air Force Range in Nevada or Edwards Air Force Base in California, but airspace above the general area is restricted to all aircraft, military and civilian. (Cue The X-Files theme.) Area 51 became the stuff of legend after the so-called Roswell Incident, and is allegedly where a recovered alien space ship was stored after crashing in New Mexico in 1947, spawning legions of alien enthusiasts. The Air Force says it uses the area to test new military technology, and declassified documents from 2013 revealed that the U-2 Spy Plane Program in the 1950s and '60s was worked on at the base. The spot of nearly empty desert boasts air space that's more restricted than that of the nation's capital.

10. Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness // Northern Minnesota

Restriction: Surface to 4000 feet.

This million-acre expanse of pristine wilderness runs 199 miles along the Canadian border. The area’s nearly 1200 lakes, dramatic views of glacier-carved canyons, and untrammeled natural beauty make it a paradise for outdoor adventurers. President Harry Truman established the no-fly zone over the area back in 1948 and we thank him for it.

11. Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay // Georgia

Restriction: Surface to 3000 feet.

Another bit of restricted airspace we can safely file in the “no duh” category is the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia. This base houses the U.S. Navy Atlantic Fleet’s Trident nuclear-powered submarines, ballistic and guided missile submarines, and the Strategic Weapons Facility Atlantic (SWFLANT)—which is essentially a missile factory. The base’s functions include maintaining, overhauling, and modernizing the sub fleet, including its weapon systems. Despite the heavy artillery housed here and a strict no-fly zone, over the last decade pilots have violated its airspace eight times and there have been four crashes within the base’s borders.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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