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7 Must-Haves for a Comfortable, Easy Flight

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You may only brave the long lines and baggage fees once or twice a year, but you’ll be able to fly like a pro once you steal these travel tricks from frequent fliers. Here are the top gadgets and accessories that travel pros say they never board a plane without—and we’re betting that you’ll want to stow them in your carry-on, too. 

1. NOISE-CANCELLING HEADPHONES

“I often pop them on as soon as I sit down and flip on the noise cancellation feature to help me begin relaxing right away before a long flight,” Zach Honig, editor-in-chief of travel tips website The Points Guy, says of his headphones of choice, Bose's QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones. Bose has released a new version (the QuietComfort 35, $350 at Bose.com), but Honig says he still prefers the older model ($299 at Amazon.com), which has been tried and tested—and he knows won’t fail on him mid-flight.

2. PURELL

Honig brings along a travel-size bottle of hand sanitizer that he dangles from his backpack ($26 for a 12-pack at Target.com). “Sometimes, I’ll put some on a napkin and wipe down the seat controls and tray table, but I usually just use it for my hands before each snack or meal,” Honig says.

3. BLOW UP NECK PILLOW

These take up very little space in your bag and can be fully inflated in 30 seconds, says Miami-based Halle Eavelyn, author of the travel memoir Red Goddess Rising, who travels at least every quarter but sometimes monthly to speaking engagements and for vacation. “I use them once and then they fold into my same little travel case when I’m done,” Eavelyn says.

4. FACE MASK

An airplane cabin is so dry that it absorbs moisture from anywhere it can, including your skin, says Ava Shamban, a Beverly Hills dermatologist who travels frequently for work. “To combat dry air and fight aging at the same time, use an ultra-hydrating product to revive your skin post-travel. Since it’s a little difficult to do the face mask on the plane, it’s best to do this one as soon as you get to your hotel.

5. EYE MASK

While many airlines pass out eye masks these days (or have them available for purchase mid-flight), one pro goes a step further by bringing his own fluffy one that’s a step above the rest. Johnny Jet, Los Angeles-based founder of Johnnyjet.com, travels around 150,000 miles annually—but he doesn’t go anywhere without a Lewis & Clarke eye mask ($8.99 at Lewisnclark.com), which is plush and blocks all the light.

6. MELATONIN

This is a must for Eavelyn, who pops a pill of the sleep-regulating hormone the minute the flight leaves. “Get into the new time zone the minute you take off, no matter what the airline is telling you by their cabin lights and meal times,” she says. “It also helps with jet lag, so I keep taking it the first few nights I’m traveling.”

7. A CHANGE OF CLOTHES

Eavelyn says she always brings a change of clothes in case her bags don’t arrive with her—and if you're checking the majority of your baggage, it's smart to pack more than one outfit (including clean socks and underwear) in your carry-on. “On long layovers, I also change into those clothes at the airport because it’s a huge refresher,” Eavelyn says.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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