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40 Years Ago, Iran Was Hit by the Deadliest Blizzard in History

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Blizzard image via Shutterstock

Forty years ago this week, the deadliest blizzard on record ripped through the lower Caucasus and into Iran, where it left 4,000 people dead. The Blizzard of 1972, as this hellish storm has come to be known, wasn’t your run of the mill squall; it wiped entire villages—200 villages, to be exact—off the map.

Coming on the heels of a series of storms in late January, the blizzard of 1972 traveled through western Iran and into Azerbaijan from about February 3 to February 8, dropping up to 26 feet of snow—that’s a two and half story building worth of snowfall—and snapping telephone lines, burying commuter trains, entombing villages, and crushing cars in its wake.

At the height of this blizzard, authorities estimated that a region about the size of Wisconsin, spanning most of western Iran, was entirely buried for more than a week. Those few who survived the -13 degree Fahrenheit temperatures were without water, food, heat and medical aid for days on end at a time when—just in case these poor people didn’t have enough to deal with—a deadly flu virus was also moving through rural Iran.

On February 9, 1972, after nearly a week of constant snowfall, the blizzard broke for a brief, but merciful, 24-hour period, allowing Iranian rescue workers to be transported by helicopter out to what looked essentially like enormous snow drifts—white expanses where villages used to be.

According to Associated Press reports, some rescue workers who’d been dropped on a snow drift burying a village called Sheklab dug for two days straight, burrowing through 8 feet of snow, only to find 18 frozen bodies and no one—not one single person in a population of 100—still alive.

Another blizzard started up again on February 11, forcing rescue workers to abandon their searches. Army helicopters left two tons of bread and dates scattered over the snowdrifts, in hopes that some people could tunnel their way to the surface, but many never did.

The second deadliest blizzard on record tore through Afghanistan in 2008, bringing -30 degree temperatures and killing an estimated 926 people.

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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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