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Be Amazing: Control the Weather

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Whether you're looking to start your own religion, swallow a sword, quit smoking, find Atlantis, buy the Moon, sink a battleship, perform your own surgeries, or become a ninja, our new book Be Amazing covers all the essential life skills! This week, we'll be excerpting a few lessons from the book.

Step 1: CONVINCE PEOPLE YOU AREN'T A NUTJOB

This will be tough, but you'll need to do it successfully if you're going to have any hope of procuring some funding. The problem is that when most people think of weather-control devices, they think of quacks like George Ambrosius Immanuel Morrison Sykes, who traveled the country promoting his weather machine in the late 1920s and early 1930s. According to Boston Globe reporter Drake Bennett, who wrote an article on weather control in 2005, Sykes's big break (and even larger crack up) came in the summer of 1930, when the innovative owners of New York's Belmont Park horse racing track decided to ensure gambling satisfaction by keeping that years' racing season rain-free. To do this, they hired Sykes. And, by all accounts, they got a pretty good deal—the would-be weather god agreed to be paid only for the days he actually succeeded in keeping the storm clouds away and, in fact, actually promised to pay the Belmont owners double for days he failed.


Surprisingly, Sykes' first week on the job went so well that his contract was extended. As irony would have it, this was when the deluge began. From this point, the weather thoroughly failed to obey Mr. Sykes's command; even when he promised rain, the sun shown. But, while his machine probably lacked scientific merit, it turned out that the concept of making rain wasn't entirely unrealistic. Sixteen years later, a General Electric research chemist managed to actually do what Sykes had faked. In 1946, Vincent J. Schaefer flew over a mountain in Massachusetts, sprinkling three pounds of crushed dry ice along the way. The result: a man-made snowfall. And, later that year, Kurt Vonnegut's meteorologist brother, Bernard, discovered that silver iodide would also prompt precipitation. By 1951, "cloud seeding" was being used to dampen 10 percent of the United States.

Step 2: RETAIN A GOOD LAWYER

Technically, what you are about to do is illegal. Hey, don't look at us. Blame the government!

Back in 1966, the U.S. military began a massive cloud-seeding experiment in Vietnam. Called Project Popeye, it was meant to soak the Ho Chi Minh trail to the point of being impassible, hopefully bogging down the North Vietnamese forces in the muck.

And in 1972, the last year of Project Popeye, a state-funded cloud-seeding operation in South Dakota got a little overzealous and ended up creating a flood that killed more than 200 people. When both these incidents hit the news wire, they created a sensation of fear and, yes, loathing. Antiweather-control sentiment eventually culminated in a United Nations treaty that forbade using weather control for military purposes or for any violent reason. America ratified the treaty back in 1979. But this shouldn't necessarily block you from pursuing your dream of benevolently tampering with nature. It certainly didn't stop U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Representative Mark Udall from sponsoring pro-weather-control bills in recent years. Both bills would have created a Weather Modification Advisory and Research Board tied both to the White House and the Pentagon. As of today, neither has become law.

Step 3: GET DOWN TO THE SCIENCE

Cloud-seeding is definitely the most popular form of weather control—namely because we know for sure that it works. Grains of silver iodide dropped into a cloud work as a sort of irritant, causing droplets of water vapor to form around them. When the cloud gets heavy enough, it rains.

But scientists are working on new and improved methods. Ross Hoffman, a researcher with Massachusetts-based Atmospheric and Environmental Research, has used computer models to demonstrate how a deadly hurricane could be stopped or moved away from a city. Ironically, Hoffman's method actually involves making the hurricane stronger—even a slight change in wind speed can drastically alter the direction and duration of a storm. Heating up the storm would work, too. Unfortunately, in order to make either small change happen, we'd have to be able to produce, store, and transfer a massive quantity of energy—far more massive than any ever before controlled by humanity. Translation: Don't expect this any time soon. However, in a decade or two, the story may be very different. By then, its possible that we might have technology capable of harnessing energy from the sun and beaming it to Earth, where it can warm up the offending hurricanes.

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technology
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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