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Did You Know There Was a Wright Sister?

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Amazon/iStock

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough is a master class in how little most of us really know about Orville and Wilbur Wright, two men of humble origins who would give humanity the impossible gift of flight. Theirs was more than a singular good idea executed at the right time. The Wright Flyer was less the work of two aeronautic savants than it was the result of tireless and obsessive labor and study by two men whose full-time careers were running a bicycle shop. To invent the airplane, they had to invent inventing; no reliable mathematics tables existed for scaling wings to carry humans, and much to their surprise and dismay, no usable research existed at all on the workings of this thing called a propeller.

The magnitude of the problem was (and remains) virtually inconceivable: how to build the wings; how to control a flight; where to position a person on this contraption; how to launch it; how to land it; how to build it; and how to build a suitable motor to run the thing. They had to deal with such problems while facing mockery by science journals of note, which dismissed the idea of human flight as the lunatic notions of suicidal cranks. To overcome the challenges intrinsic to changing the world, the Wright Brothers, as McCullough's masterful biography describes, depended on another person, largely unheralded, who played a vital role in the creation of the airplane: their sister, Katharine.

THE TEACHER OF "THE SAWED-OFF VARIETY"

Katharine Wright was the youngest of five and the only of her siblings to graduate from college. After finishing Oberlin, she took a job teaching Latin at Steele High School, where "she would flunk many of Dayton's future leaders." Brilliant, sociable, and vivacious, she provided an unshakable foundation of support for her brothers in all their endeavors: the print shop they co-founded, then the bicycle shop they started, and finally their interests in flight. Though she did not design, build, or pilot the famed Flyer, she played a vital role in its creation and later popularization.

Katharine was the sounding board for her brothers. While Orville and Wilbur tested their prototype flying rigs at Kitty Hawk, a desolate North Carolina village chosen for its windy skies and sandy beaches (perfect for landing), they corresponded extensively with Katharine. They explained their successes and setbacks, and after particularly tough trials which left them certain that their idea was a hopeless one—that the journals were correct about human flight being impossible—Katharine offered support, encouragement, and advice. Her contributions to the initial tests at Kitty Hawk were both big and small. She packed food for the brothers to enjoy in their initial austere environs. Through humorous correspondence, she gave them an outlet to share and consider problems outside of engineering and physics.

More substantially, during school holidays, while her brothers were at Kitty Hawk and beyond, she kept the Wright Cycle Company solvent, firing incompetent managers and helping in its day-to-day operations. The Wrights were privately funded. Their bicycle shop was crucial to their work, and provided every penny they spent in the development of the airplane. They wanted no government assistance and no outside investors.

When word later spread of the brothers' modest successes, engineering societies requested public talks—something the Wright Brothers were hardly prepared for or eager to attempt. It was Katharine who pressed them to attend such events, and even chose the clothes they should wear. The most notable of these speeches—"Some Aeronautical Experiments," delivered by Wilbur—would later be described as the "Book of Genesis of the 20-century Bible of Aeronautical Experiments." It wouldn't have been given without Katharine's insistence.

Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

The Wrights were a close family. Orville and Wilbur never married, and Katharine married in 1926, three years before her death. (Wilbur had died 14 years earlier of typhoid fever.) Because of the family's closeness, the health of their beloved father was always a concern. In addition to tending to the bicycle shop, Katharine cared for their father, freeing her brothers to continue their work without guilt or anxiety.

THE BURDEN OF PROOF

For Wilbur and Orville, achieving the impossible and actually building a working airplane wasn't enough. The Wrights faced the challenge of showing people that their airplane actually existed. People simply didn't believe it. Long after the Wright Flyer was zipping through the skies of Ohio, Scientific American ran a skeptical and dismissive piece titled "The Wright Aeroplane and Its Fabled Performances." Witness accounts were roundly ignored, and photographs were asserted to have been forgeries.

The Wrights were undaunted by this. They wrote the War Department and explained what they had created, providing photos of their invention. Their correspondence was ignored. The French government approached the Wrights, however, and expressed great interest. The brothers had to box up their creation and ship it overseas, guarding it jealously throughout—once details of the design breakthroughs of their plane leaked, their invention would be rendered valueless.

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Public demonstrations in Paris proved sensational. Far beyond attracting the interest of military officials, they captured the imagination of the entire country, and soon, the entire continent. Hundreds of thousands of people showed for public demonstrations, and the Wrights were feted in every corner. This was more troubling than one might think. The Flyer worked marvelously, but it wasn't idiot-proof; on every flight, one wrong move would mean catastrophe for the pilot. Parties at palaces hardly left time for the serious business of pilot preparation. Wilbur, who ran the Europe operation, needed someone to handle the social aspects of the job.

Back in the United States, Orville ran the demonstration flights for the now-very-interested U.S. government. When he suffered a devastating and nearly fatal crash in Washington, however, it fell to Katharine to help him when doctors had all but written him off. As McCullough writes, "There was never a question of what she must do. Moving into action without pause, she called the school principal [where she worked], told her what had happened, and said she would be taking an indefinite leave of absence. Then, quickly as possible, she packed what clothes she thought she would need and was on board the last train to Washington at 10 that same evening." She would devote herself to the rehabilitation of her brother.

The terrible nature of Orville's injury and his recovery took its toll on her. She later wrote to Wilbur, "Brother has been suffering so much … and I am so dead tired when morning comes that I can't hold a pen." Orville would later say that without his sister, he would not have survived.

CELEBRITY

Eventually, the furor in Paris became too much, and Wilbur beseeched his sister to come to Europe and act as his "social manager." She agreed, bringing Orville with her. In addition to caring for the greatly weakened brother while in Europe, she took public pressure off of Wilbur by wining and dining the world's aristocracy, who simply could not get their fill of the astonishing Wright Brothers and their miracle of human flight. She entertained kings, prime ministers, and business titans alike. She took French classes two hours every morning. Because she was fluent in Greek and Latin, she picked up the language quickly, and with a native speaker on their roster, the Wrights were able to cause an even greater splash in Parisian society. According to McCullough:

"The less Orville had to say, the more Katharine talked and with great effect. She had become a celebrity in her own right. The press loved her. 'The masters of the aeroplane, these two clever and intrepid Daytonians, who have moved about Europe under the spotlight of extraordinary publicity, have had a silent partner,' wrote one account. But silent she was no longer and reporters delighted in her extroverted, totally unaffected Midwestern American manner."

One account of Katharine put it most succinctly: "Who was it who gave them new hope, when they began to think the problem [of flight] impossible? … Who was it that nursed Orville back to strength and health when the physicians had practically given him up after that fatal accident last September?"

During all of this, Katharine maintained correspondence with their father back home—freeing desperately needed time for the Wright Brothers to maintain their plane and the bearing necessary to fly it. Moreover, when the Wrights needed to take someone up as a passenger, they often took Katharine, if only to demonstrate their confidence in the flying machine. Katharine had flown "longer and farther than had any American woman." She was, in fact, the "only woman in the world who had made three flights in an aeroplane," and she would become, at the time, the only woman ever invited to a dinner at the Aéro-Club de France.  

She was an ambassador of sorts for America in Europe, and later, for Europe in America. She took the American press to task for diminishing the European fascination with flight. "She loved America, she said, but the American people did not always understand Europeans, who were an appreciative people. She could not listen to anyone saying unkind things about them without protesting."

All of this set the stage for her later life. She was a visible member of the suffrage movement. She traveled the world and devoted her time to Oberlin College. After the death of Wilbur, she supported Orville's successful business ventures to the last.

Katharine, the Wright Sister, died in 1929.

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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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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]

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