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5 Weather Events Worth Chatting About

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istock

Usually, the weather is a subject for polite, uneventful conversation with people you don't know very well. But sometimes the weather is weird, or even downright scary. Here are a few examples of weather events that gave neighbors more than enough to awkwardly discuss.

1. Dramatic Changes

Midwesterners are accustomed to using both their heat and air conditioning in the same day due to dramatic temperature changes and unseasonable weather. The "Great Blue Norther" of 1911 was the most dramatic cold snap ever recorded—several cities set record high and low temperatures on the same day. On November 11, 1911 (yes, 11/11/11) a massive storm system separated warm air from arctic air, yielding violent wind and storms. Kansas City, Missouri reached a high temperature of 76° F (24°C), and by midnight, the temperature plunged to 11° F (-11 C°). The 65 degree difference was replicated in Oklahoma City and Springfield, Missouri.

In addition to the temperature changes, the front also caused dust storms, tornadoes, and blizzards from Oklahoma to Ohio. Nine people were killed by an F4 tornado in Janesville, Wisconsin; an hour later rescuers were working in near zero temperatures and blizzard conditions to rescue victims. 

2. Raining Rainbows

We've all heard about the damaging effects of acid rain, but what about colored rain? Over the course of an entire month in 2001, deep red rain fell in the Kerala region of India. Yellow, green and black rain was also reported. The rain was such a deep color, residents claimed it stained clothes and resembled blood. The official report found that the unusual rain was caused by spores of a lichen-forming algae sucked into the atmosphere by a waterspout, much to the dismay of many people who thought it was caused by extraterrestrial activity.

Siberia experienced a strange yellow-orange snow in the winter of 2007. The oily, smelly snow was feared to be caused by industrial pollution, a rocket launch or maybe even a nuclear accident, but was eventually blamed on a massive sand storm in Kazakhstan.

3. Disappearing Islands

A hurricane in New York is a pretty rare occurrence—they hit about once every 75 years. In 1893, a Category 2 hurricane made landfall near present-day JFK Airport and caused extensive damage to the city, uprooting trees in Central Park, tossing wrought iron gates through buildings, and destroying nearly every building on Coney Island. The storm also obliterated a mile-long barrier island known as Hog Island, which was home to several saloons and bathhouses. The storm seriously eroded the island and destroyed all of its buildings; a few years later it was reduced to a few mounds of sand. This storm struck well before trendy hurricane names, so it was known only as the West Indian Monster of 1893. Researchers discovered dozens of antique items buried in the sand when the Rockaway Beach shores were being rebuilt in the 1990s.

4. Raining Animals

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Yes, it has rained frogs in real life, not just in the movie Magnolia. Birds, bats, fish and even worms have been reported to fall from the sky. Scientists theorize that fast-moving storms and waterspouts cross a body of water and sweep or suck up animals, then deposit them miles away. Residents of Honduras have celebrated the Lluvia de Peces (Rain of Fish) annually for more than a century. The fish are believed to be sucked up from the ocean and deposited 140 miles inland, while others have indicated that the fish may be from underground water sources.
 
Animals have been known to survive the traumatic process, appearing startled but otherwise fine. But usually, they aren't so lucky, and don't survive the fall. Two instances in the 19th century indicate that cows were sucked up into the sky during a storm, and returned to earth in tiny pieces. Animals can also freeze to death in the frigid temperatures of the atmosphere, some of them are encased in ice when they make landfall. 

5. Disappearing Seasons

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Volcanic winters, a phenomenon in which volcanic ash obscures the rays of the sun and increases the earth's reflectivity, causes dramatic decreases in temperature. In 1816, a volcanic winter led to a year where temperatures were so low in Europe and the United States, it was dubbed The Year Without a Summer. Volcanic ash from several eruptions, including Mount Tambora in Indonesia, caused irregularities worldwide, but the affects were most severe in Europe, Canada and the northern United States. A harsh frost in May destroyed many crops, snowstorms hit New England in June, and ice on rivers and lakes was observed in Pennsylvania in July and August. Snow was reported in tropical climates such as Thailand, along with colored freezing rain and snowfall in Hungary and Italy.

Food shortages forced the price of the surviving crops to record levels, and the effect was particularly devastating in Europe, where countries were still recuperating from the Napoleonic Wars. Riots and looting of warehouses became commonplace, especially in Switzerland, where a national emergency was declared. An estimated 200,000 perished from hunger and the cold temperatures in Europe alone.

The strange weather is also credited with several cultural influences. Mary Shelley and John Polidori went on a vacation to Switzerland with their friends were forced to stay inside. To keep things interesting, they started a contest to develop the scariest story, leading to Frankenstein and Vampyre. Due to the lack of feed for horses, German Karl Drais was inclined to invent the velocipede, the predecessor of the modern bicycle.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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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