CLOSE

14 Ethereal Secrets of Skywriters

The first time humans saw a message written in the sky was during World War I, when pilots in the British Royal Air Force used skywriting to communicate with troops. In 1922, a Royal Air Force captain took the technique to the world of advertising, writing aerial messages in England and New York City. Brands such as Lucky Strike cigarettes, Ford, and Pepsi soon employed skywriters to advertise in the great blue yonder, a practice that continues today.

If you’ve ever looked up at a sky-written message and wondered about the person flying the plane, you’re in luck. Check out these secrets of skywriters for an inside-the-cockpit view.

1. THEY’RE BASICALLY ACROBATS IN THE SKY.

“Your professional sky-writer is a trained aerial acrobat,” famed aviator and skywriter Oliver Colin LeBoutillier wrote in the March 1929 edition of Popular Science Monthly. Besides successfully navigating a plane at 10,000 feet, skywriters must also diagram and memorize each maneuver and perform it with complete precision. They have to write their messages upside-down and backwards, so that it’s legible to people on the ground, and they can’t see what they’re writing when they’re up in the sky. “I’ve been doing it for years and years and years, and still there’s a learning curve,” skywriter Greg Stinis tells Quartz.

2. THEY VALUE BREVITY.

If you find Twitter’s character limit challenging, you’ve probably never written a message in the sky. Depending on weather conditions, a skywritten message will evaporate within a few minutes to a few hours. Because of this time pressure, skywriters need to keep their messages brief. They’re also limited by the amount of fuel and skywriting fluid their plane can hold. Most can only write 10 letters, but skywriter Suzanne Asbury-Oliver and her husband, Steve Oliver, have a modified plane that makes it possible for them to write up to 25 letters.

3. THEY VIEW THEMSELVES AS ARTISTS.

Although they’re highly skilled pilots with tons of technical knowledge, skywriters think of their work as an art form. They begin a job by sketching the message on a piece of paper, planning and diagramming each twist and turn. And once they’re in the air, they have to use their intuition to feel their way around the letters. “The only bad part is that I can’t take my canvas of art away with me. Eventually it fades away. It goes with the breeze,” Stinis says.

4. THEY LOVE HOLIDAYS AND BIG ANNUAL EVENTS.

iStock

According to Glenn Smith, a skywriter based in Australia, holidays and big annual events are his bread and butter. “It is the big events of the year that guarantee the work—the Melbourne Cup, the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, and Valentine’s Day,” Smith says. Companies may hire skywriters to advertise during music festivals, movie premieres, and baseball games because the message will get a lot of eyeballs. And Valentine’s Day is a popular day for marriage proposals and other big romantic gestures.

5. THEIR CUSTOMERS PAY THEM LARGE AMOUNTS …

Skywriting is a costly enterprise. Because skywriters must pay for a high-horsepower plane, plane maintenance, fuel, and skywriting fluid, which can cost $10 a gallon, a typical job costs thousands of dollars. And the price can quickly go up. Asbury-Oliver tells Bloomberg that the most expensive part of skywriting is transporting the airplane to the job. “It costs about $2 a mile to move the airplane. If we’re in Tucson, Arizona, and [clients] want something in San Francisco, we have to charge them for mileage.”

6. … BUT MOST SKYWRITERS NEED A SECOND JOB.

For Smith, who owns an engineering company, skywriting is not a full-time job. “My primary income is from my engineering business—you wouldn’t be able to run an airplane, run a family, and pay a mortgage out of skywriting. You do it because you have a passion for it,” he says. Today, because fewer companies are hiring skywriters, only a few people are able to earn enough to make it their full-time job. “We always have called [skywriting] a lost art because it was dwindling when I started and it still is dwindling … There's really just a handful of skywriters left,” Asbury-Oliver tells The Atlantic.

7. TYPOS ARE THEIR GREATEST FEAR.

Because skywriters don’t have the luxury of using erasers or pressing the delete key, complete precision is a major job requirement. Although skywritten typos and misspelled hashtags do happen, it’s rare for a professional with years of experience to make a mistake. When mistakes do happen, though, a pilot might draw a line through the error and start the message over. And in a large city, millions of people will see the typo before it evaporates.

8. A CLOUDY DAY MEANS THEY CAN’T WORK.

Because skywriting fluid appears white, cloudy days mean that a skywritten message won’t be visible. Skywriters aim to work on clear, cool days with high humidity and minimal wind. Since weather can be unpredictable, most skywriters won’t promise that your message will be written at an exact date and time. “We need at least a three-day window to get their message up there,” Oliver explains.

9. THEY’VE CAUSED TRAFFIC JAMS AND CAR ACCIDENTS.

Skywriters have the power to turn heads, stop traffic, and distract drivers. Because skywriting appears slowly, letter by letter, people often try to figure out what the message is as it’s being written. “When people see [skywriting], they literally slam on their brakes in green lights and stick their heads out the window,” Asbury-Oliver says.

10. THEY KEEP THEIR TRADE SECRETS CLOSE TO THEIR CHEST.

Because skywriting has historically been a highly competitive field, skywriters have carefully guarded the technical secrets of their job. Oliver tells mental_floss that there’s no certification program and no written training manual. Aspiring skywriters, even if they’re highly skilled pilots, must learn the craft from someone who knows it already. Asbury-Oliver, who worked for Pepsi’s skywriting program until it ended in 2000, couldn’t reveal trade secrets to anyone without violating her contract. And today’s skywriters, such as Stinis, try to keep the business in the family—his father taught him how to skywrite, and he taught his son.

11. SKYTYPERS HAVE BROUGHT SKYWRITING INTO THE DIGITAL WORLD.

Traditional skywriting differs from skytyping, a digital form of skywriting in which multiple planes (usually five) use a centralized computer system to quickly and accurately create a message. Stinis’s father Andy patented skytyping in the 1960s, and Stinis’s company uses the technique, which is similar to dot matrix printing, to create automated messages. Skytyping requires less artistry than regular skywriting because the planes rely on a computer (rather than pilot) for much of the work.

12. THEY LIKE SOCIAL MEDIA.

Social media has boosted skywriting’s popularity. With Facebook, Twitter, Periscope, Snapchat, and Instagram, people around the world can see a skywritten message even as it’s being created, the messages reach more eyeballs, and they can be preserved for far longer. Although the message is lost when the smoke vaporizes, the internet is forever.

13. THEY TRAVEL ALL AROUND THE WORLD FOR WORK.

Because skywriters are few and far between, companies are often willing to pay them to travel. It takes time and money to transport a plane, though, so Stinis and his son Stephen own planes in Spain, France, and South Africa. Stinis has done jobs in Japan and Dubai, and Oliver and Asbury-Oliver have skywritten messages in all 50 U.S. states, Mexico, Canada, and El Salvador.

14. WE MAY SEE COLORED AND GLOW-IN-THE-DARK SKYWRITING IN THE FUTURE.

iStock

Although it is possible to skywrite with colored (rather than white) fluid, it’s more difficult to work with. For over four decades, Stinis’s company has experimented with dyes to produce colored smoke, but hasn’t found a functional, cost-effective solution yet. If the technology progresses, we may regularly see colored skywriting—or even glow-in-the-dark skywriting for nighttime use—in the future.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
iStock
arrow
Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
Original image
iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES