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The Coldest Places on Earth

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A few days ago, I woke to find my pipes frozen. The outdoor temperature was in the single digits, and the house temperature hovered in the 50s all day. The next day was warmer, but an ice storm soon followed. I made myself feel better by looking up the coldest places in the world.

International Falls

International Falls, Minnesota is known as the coldest spot in the lower 48 states. The town of almost 7,000 people has an average temperature of 36.4 °F (2 °C). The average low for December, January, and February is below zero. The local Icebox Days festival features snowmobile racing, snow sculptures, bowling with frozen turkeys, and the "Freeze Yer Gizzard Blizzard Run." Fraser, Colorado also claims the title of "Icebox of the Nation". The two towns have disputed each other's claims for years. It's a matter for the courts even now.



Umiat, Alaska is the coldest place in the United States, with an average temperature of 10.1°F. That beats Barrow easily. Considering that Umiat can reach the 70s in the summertime, you know the winters are bonechilling. However, the population hovers around five people with no permanent residents. You can follow weather conditions at Umiat Air Field online.

But those are warm, compared to other places on earth.



This picture of Jim Brader shows what it's like to be a meteorologist in Alaska. The photo was taken as Brader was on his way to the Snag airstrip in Yukon, Canada. Snag was the site of the lowest temperature ever recorded in North America. On February 3rd, 1947, weathermen etched a notch in the thermometer, because the mercury was below the lowest indicator marks. When the thermometer was analyzed later, it was found that the temperature would've read -81.4°F (-63°C). In temperatures that low, the voices of people could be heard four miles away. Frozen breath hangs in the air for up to 15 minutes, making it easy to find where someone has gone.

Northice Station


The coldest place in the western hemisphere is Greenland, although the country is historically claimed as part of Europe. The Northice Research Station in the middle of the Greenland Ice Sheet recorded a temperature of -87°F (-66°C) on January 9th, 1954. The researchers immediately packed up and went home to the coast. Just kidding! However, it must be too cold to take photographs, since I couldn't find any of Northice.



Yakutsk, capital of the Yakutia region in Siberia claims to be the coldest city on earth. Considering it has a population of 200,000 people, that may be so. In January, daily high temperatures average around -58°F (-50°C). Residents often leave their cars running all day long to ensure they can get home. You are warned not to wear glasses outside, as they will freeze to your face and tear the flesh when you try to remove them. See more pictures and a video of Yakutsk here.



Verkhoyansk, in the Yakutia region of Siberia, lies within the Arctic Circle, an eight-day drive from Yakutsk. But you can only drive there in the winter, when the lakes are frozen, because there are no land roads! 1,300 people live in Verkhoyansk, the biggest part of whom make their living herding reindeer and fur hunting. The area has abundant natural resources, including gold, but is too cold to develop profitable mining. The picture above was taken at the Pole of Cold in Verkhoyansk. Note the mammoth's tusks that mark the spot.

Temperatures that have been recorded at the Verkhoyansk Weather Station have shown a record low of minus 72 degrees Celsius, and an average temperature for January being minus 49 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately, a nearby town by the name of Oimyakon is also trying to gain the title of Cold Pole, with an unofficial record low of minus 78 degrees Celsius. It is no wonder that this region has the nickname of "Stalin's Death Ring".

When you think you are cold, check out the forecast for Verkhoyansk.



Oymyakon, the other village that claims to be the coldest spot in the northern hemisphere, is also in the Yakutia region of Russia. In English, the name means "Oy, My Achin' Toes". Just kidding! In the Sakha language, it means "non-freezing water", because of the presence of a hot spring in the midst of the permafrost. On January 26, 1926, the temperature in Oymayakon was recorded as -96.2°F (-71.2°C). Some will argue with this figure because it was achieved through extrapolation instead of a direct thermometer measurement. Like Snag, Canada, Oymyakon lies in a bowl between mountains, which traps cold air. The temperature in winter is often lower than -50°F. It was -76°F just last week! See more pictures of Oymyakon here.

Vostok Station


In the southern hemisphere, there's no argument about the coldest place. The coldest temperature ever recorded on earth was at Vostok Station, a Russian research station in inland Antarctica. On July 21st, 1983, thermometers read -128.6°F (-89.2°C). The station is manned year-round. Russians are hardy people.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]