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6 of the Worst Car Accidents in Recent U.S. History

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I suffer from dystychiphobia, the fear of accidents. It's pretty intense. FIve years ago, while staying in Arizona one Spring, I witnessed a horrifying accident that to this day keeps me up at night. Still, I can't help reading and being slightly obsessed with accident reports. Here are six recent-ish ones that are pretty awful.

1. May 14, 1988

The worst bus accident in American history occurred on the way home from a church trip to an amusement park. First Assembly of God Church in Radcliffe, KY sponsored a youth trip to King’s Island amusement park on a former school bus that then served as a church activity bus. Outside of Carrollton, KY, at 11PM, a black Toyota pick-up truck, driven by an intoxicated Larry Wayne Mahoney, struck the bus nearly head on. Mahoney had been driving in the wrong direction on I-71. The crash disabled the front door of the bus and ruptured the gas tank. Within minutes, the bus was completely engulfed in flames. Of the 66 passengers, 27 died on the bus, 34 were injured—most severely. Mahony was sentenced to 16 years in jail. Two of the mothers of crash victims, Karolyn Nunnallee and Janey Fair, became President and Vice President, respectively, of the National MADD (Mother’s Against Drunk Driving) Association. It was determined that the lack of emergency exits, fragility of the gas tank, flammability of the seats and a cooler that was blocking the only functioning exit, all contributed to the high fatality rate.

2. December 11, 1990

Just after 9AM, on a stretch of I-75 in Tennessee, dense fog blanketed the highway and led to a 70-car pile-up. There had been warning signs posted but conditions deteriorated too quickly for them to help motorists. The wreckage stretched for a half mile and caused 13 fatalities. The car fires added to the chaos and 33 different fire companies responded to the call. Survivors say that it sounded like endless bombs and gunshots going off as one car after another plowed into the mess. Tennessee has since installed an improved fog warning system with fog sensors that can change the read out on highway signs to alert motorists and also close on-ramps to prevent pile-ups. Reflective markers and flashing lights were also installed to help guide cars stuck in fog.


3. November 29, 1991

As traffic increased with travelers returning home after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, winds along I-5 in California reached 40 miles an hour. The usually lush farmlands had been left unplanted due to a severe drought. The wind whipped up a fierce dust storm that seriously cut visibility. This all led to a pile up of 104 vehicles, including four tractor trailers, along a one mile stretch of highway. After hours of rescue efforts in the continuing dust storm, 17 people had died and 150 were seriously injured. The pileup led to thousands more being trapped in their cars for another day while road crews cleared the wreckage and worked to re-open the highway.

4. July 4, 1998

Virgina’s I-81 is known as a treacherous road that has seen more than its share of accidents. But nothing compares to the horrific accident on July 4th. Kevin Chittum, his fiancée, Whitney Rogers, his 13 year old sister, 11 year old niece, and two of his niece’s friends piled into a car to head to the county fair. The couple’s three year old daughter, Rebecca, pleaded to be included, but there was no room. The group pulled away with promises of returning with a candy apple for the crying Rebecca. The parents stopped twice to call and check on the upset toddler. Then as a storm moved into the area, Chittum’s car hit a bump in the road, hydroplaned, sailed across the
median, crashing head on with a tractor-trailer. All passengers in the car, as well as the truck driver, Jerry Douglas Gregory, were killed.

5. February 22, 2000

Despite balmy conditions in Virginia the previous two days, on February 22 the temperature plummeted to just 27 degrees. A snowstorm moved in and created white out conditions on I-95, dropping over an inch of snow in just minutes. The worst pile-up in Virginia history followed involving 117 cars. The terrible accident left 1 person dead and 31 more injured. It also led to a massive cleanup and rescue effort by fire fighters, rescue workers, the Virginia Department of Transportation, and the state police. Amazingly, they were able to rescue the victims, clear the wreckage, and reopen the vital highway in just 12 hours.


6. January 19, 2009

Ice and snow conditions caused at least 20 automobile accidents in one night in Washington County, Maryland. The worst of these was a pile-up involving 7 tractor trailers and 35 cars. The accident claimed 2 people’s lives and injured 35 more, 12 of those were seriously injured. The Red Cross stepped in and took 45 people to one of their shelters until road conditions improved. The incident was blamed on snowy, icy roads.

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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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May 23, 2017
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