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It's Raining, It's Pouring: 6 Awful Floods

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Water, water, water, water"¦ I live in Des Moines so that's sort of all I'm hearing about right now. Rain water, sewer water, river water, bottled water, watery water"¦ there's lots of water everywhere you look right now. Except maybe the grocery stores.

You've probably heard that areas of the Midwest are flooding pretty badly right now; Des Moines is bad but better than some areas. I guess my hometown of Ottumwa is taking a pretty good hit; a friend saw a carp floating down his street yesterday. Here's what Des Moines looks like right now:

That's a road leading into downtown—you can see part of the skyline in the background. For more pictures of DSM, check out my local blog. I'll just say this: some people will not stop their daily runs for anything.

UPDATE: That picture was Wednesday. Here's the same view on Friday... you can see the water is creeping closer to the truck:

Anyway, I figured it was a good time to revisit some big floods of the past. I did leave out some very obvious ones, since I think most of us know the details of those (Katrina flooding, the 2004 tsunami).

The Great Flood of 1993

Let's start with the last flood I remember, which as been called the "100 Year Flood" because a flood like that only happens once every century. Except not, since it's only been 15 years. It has been recorded as one of the most destructive floods in U.S. history, though—about 320,000 square miles were affected when the Mississippi went out of its banks. I remember my mom calling home from work to tell me to fill our bathtub up with water so we had usable water in case the town supply was compromised. It was in Des Moines—the city was out of water entirely for 11 days in July and the water wasn't deemed drinkable until August. Along the Missouri River, more than 700 levees were overflowed or destroyed entirely. St. Louis had water that was 20 feet over the flood level stage and parts of Iowa received up to 48 inches of rain in a five-month period.

A man in Illinois actually received a life sentence for his role in the flooding there—he removed sandbags from a levee because he wanted to strand his wife on the other side of the river. When the water found its way through the hole he had created, 14,000 acres of farmland were flooded, buildings were destroyed and a bridge was closed.

Some areas off of the Mississippi were flooded for nearly 200 days. About 10,000 homes were destroyed, along with 15 million acres of farmland and two entire towns (Valmeyer, Ill. and Rhineland, Mo.). The official death toll was 32 and the damage was estimated at $20 billion.

The 1931 China floods

1931This flood and the flood of '93 sound bad, but maybe we've actually been lucky—the 1931 China floods claimed the lives of somewhere between 800,000 and four million citizens. I know; quite the discrepancy. Either way, it's an astronomical number. Thus far, it's thought to be the deadliest natural disaster ever recorded (not counting pandemics).

The area had been plagued with weather problems for at least two years leading up to the big floods—first, a long draught from 1928-1930. Very heavy snowstorms hit during the winter of 1930/1931 and heavy rains that spring. Then, in July, the area was pummeled with cyclones, and, finally, the flood. Most major rivers in China flooded substantially, including the Yangtze, the Yellow and the Huai.

The North Sea Flood of 1953

The Netherlands, England, Belgium, Denmark and France were all affected by flooding and storms when a high tide and a severe windstorm combined in 1953. About 2400 lives were lost, including the passengers on the MV Princess Victoria ferry, which was lost at sea. Most of the Netherlands' 1800+ fatalities were from one night—January 31/February 1—when dykes in the provinces of Zeeland, Zuid-Holland and Noord-Brabant broke down. An estimated 70,000 people were evacuated, 47,300 buildings were damaged and 10,000 were destroyed. At the time, damage was approximately 895 million guilders.

It could have been worse for Netherland, though. A hole in the Schielandse Hoge Zeedijk dyke could have meant the death of three million people if not plugged. The mayor of Nieuwerkerk had a ship lodge itself in the hole, and to everyone's surprise, the plan worked.

All of this devastation resulted in something good, though—the Delta Works (a combination of dams, sluices, locks, dikes and storm surge barriers) were created. They are thought to be the world's largest and most elaborate protection against flooding.

The Red River Flood of 1997

red riverThis one stretched across North Dakota, Minnesota and Manitoba. It was a pretty nasty one—more than 50,000 people (at the time it was the biggest U.S. evacuation since the Civil War) were evacuated in Grand Forks, N.D. and a fire started in the town, destroying 11 buildings and 60 apartments. Manitoba alone suffered more than $500 million in damages. But this is nothing new for residents along the Red River; it has flooded repeatedly (and severely) since at least 1770. In fact, in 1950, the River overflowed and turned more than 600 square miles of farmland into a big (nasty) swimming pool. (P.S... that's the Sorlie Bridge that connects Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn.)

The 2000 Mozambique flood

birthIn 2000, Mozambique was pounded with rain for five weeks. The result was a flood that killed 800 people and 20,000 cattle. The agriculture suffered horribly following the flood—113,000 small farming households were ruined and 90 percent of the entire country's irrigation infrastructure was at least damaged. The second largest hospital in the country was totally destroyed along with 41 other health institutions. About 214,000 students were left without classrooms when 630 schools closed.

Even though 800 died, more than 45,000 were rescued from places like rooftops and trees. One woman even gave birth while stranded in a tree.

The Hunter Valley floods of 1955

maitlandThese floods (AKA the Maitland Flood) in 1955 were some of the worst Australia has ever seen. Rivers on both sides of the Great Dividing Range left their banks by a lot. Their combined floodwaters made a sea in the middle of the continent that was the size of England and Wales. The city of Maitland was hit the worst—58 homes were completely washed away and 103 were damaged beyond repair. A total of 2,180 had water damage. Twenty-five people died, but not all from drowning—three people died when a helicopter blade severed power lines, electrocuting people dangling from the helicopter who were being taken to safety. The helicopter exploded. Sadly, all of this devastation happened in only six days.

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Shhh...super secret special for blog readers.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]