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Not-So-Famous Firsts: Tornado Edition

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It is believed that a journal entry made by Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop on July 5, 1643, is the first recorded sighting of a tornado in what would become the United States. Winthrop was something of a weather geek and had begun keeping a daily diary of atmospheric conditions while aboard the Arabella en route to the New World in 1630. Winthrop’s report that July day read:

"There arose a sudden gust at N.W. so violent for half an hour as it blew down multitudes of trees. It lifted up their meeting house at Newbury, the people being in it. It darkened the air with dust, yet through God's great mercy it did no hurt, but only killed one Indian with the fall of a tree. It was straight between Linne [Lynn] and Hampton."

Winthrop didn’t mention a funnel-shaped cloud or a whirlwind (of course, he also stated that no one was hurt except for the Native American that was killed, so maybe descriptive prose wasn’t his forte). Nevertheless, most historians agree that the traveling, destructive wind Winthrop had witnessed was, in fact, a tornado.

The First Forecast

It seems unbelievable today, but as recently as 1940 Americans were dangerously ignorant of any approaching funnel clouds.

In fact, the word “tornado” was not even allowed to be mentioned in any weather broadcasts. That’s because the U.S. government, in all its wisdom, believed that merely uttering the word over the airwaves would set off a widespread panic. Of course, part of the problem was that the Weather Bureau (precursor to the National Weather Service) just didn’t have the technology necessary to accurately predict when a thunderstorm might turn deadly.

It wasn’t until 1942 that the Navy gave the Weather Bureau 25 surplus aircraft radars, which were then modified for ground meteorological use. On the evening of March 20, 1948, meteorologists Maj. Ernest J. Fawbush and Capt. Robert C. Miller were on duty at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, when they issued a base-wide report of 35 mph gusting winds without thunderstorms. At 9:00PM weather stations 20 miles southwest of their location reported lightning, and at 9:30 those same stations were pummeled by thunderstorms. By the time the Tinker AN-PQ-13 radar picked up the storm cells, a tornado had touched down at nearby Will Rogers Airport and quickly made its way to the base where it ultimately caused $10 million in damage. The financial fiasco prompted the Commanding General to “urge” his meteorological team to find a way to better predict such disastrous storms.

Fawbush and Miller spent the next 72 hours poring over surface and upper-air weather charts and compared them to charts from previous tornadic outbreaks. They found some definite similarities in weather patterns preceding each storm and, more importantly, on March 25, just five days after that twister had touched down on the base, they noted the same patterns on that morning’s weather charts. The two were most reluctant to issue an official warning since such a prediction had never before been broadcast, and besides, what were the odds of a tornado striking in the same place twice within a week?

Finally, with a feeling of dread, they sent out a carefully worded teletype warning of the possible impending storm. Although skeptical of the advisory, base officials diverted incoming aircraft, picked up loose objects and moved personnel to safe locations. Much to everyone’s surprise, a tornado did in fact touch down at Tinker Air Force Base shortly after 6:00PM that evening, causing $6 million in damage but no injuries. No one before had accurately predicted the likelihood of a tornado, much less early enough to warn local residents, and Fawbush and Miller became instant heroes in the meteorological community.

Hold It, Flash, Bang, Wallop!

The first tornado ever photographed touched ground in what is now South Dakota on August 28, 1884, and unbelievably – considering the cumbersome cameras of the day – not one but two shutterbugs were on the scene.

Several storm systems converged over the southeastern corner of the Dakota Territory that fateful day, resulting in at least four very strong tornadoes that resulted in six deaths and extensive property damage. Photographer J.C. Judkin captured a tintype image of one twister that struck near the city of Huron around 3:00PM, but the picture was ultimately lost by the folks Judkin had entrusted it to for engraving. Meanwhile, in nearby Howard City another camera buff named F.N. Robinson set up his equipment in the middle of a street intersection with the help of an assistant. According to Signal Corps weather observers the Howard twister was visible for an extended period of time on the horizon as it approached the city, which is probably why Robinson was able to snap three exposures of it. The clouds above the funnel in the one surviving photograph were retouched when it was originally developed, as was the standard practice at the time. (Image: F.N. Robinson photo 8/24/1884, Howard City, Dakota Territory)

We Interrupt This Program…

Only a few weeks after signing on as WKY-TV’s weatherman, Harry Volkman made broadcast history. The Oklahoma City station was near enough to Tinker Field that they could pick up weather alerts issued to personnel at the Air Force Base. On the afternoon of March 21, 1952, station manager P.A. “Buddy” Sugg learned that a “tornado risk” for central Oklahoma had been announced by meteorologists at the Base and he instructed Volkman to relay the information on the air. Volkman hesitated, worried that he could very well be arrested (since the word “tornado” was still officially verboten by the FCC), but Sugg told him, “They’d arrest me, not you; you’re just following my orders.”

Harry Volkman informed viewers of the impending storm, using the word “tornado” during a weather broadcast for the first time and probably saving some lives in the process, as that particular storm system ended up being the ninth deadliest tornado outbreak in U.S. history.

Choosing Words Carefully

April 11, 1965, was an unseasonably warm spring day (temperatures in the upper 80s) that had followed an unusually short winter in the Midwest. It was also Palm Sunday, which meant a lot of people were attending church services and weren’t near a radio or television. Those who were at home watching TV received conflicting messages from their local weather bulletins—some stations posted a “tornado alert” while others called the approaching storm system a “tornado forecast.” All of these factors added up to a string of 47 tornadoes that struck in less than 12 hours, killing a combined 271 people in Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan.

A meeting was held after the disaster at the WMT studios in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with officials from the Kansas City Severe Storms Forecast Center and WMT meteorologist Conrad Johnson and news director Grant Price. Together they came up with a proposed nation-wide terminology when it came to twisters: a “watch” indicated that the weather conditions were such that a tornado might form, and a “warning” meant that a funnel cloud had definitely been spotted. The National Weather Service formally adopted the criteria recommended by the team later that year and went to work educating the public on the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.