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Cloudy With a Chance of Catastrophe: Predicting the Weather in Space

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Image credit: NASA

In 1859, while observing sunspots, a young astronomer named Richard Carrington recorded a geomagnetic storm so powerful, the electrical currents it sent to Earth were enough to keep the newly invented telegraph operating without a battery. Centuries later, though humans have sent robots to Mars and even strong-armed a couple engineers into walking on the moon, the science of space weather, the changing environmental conditions in near-Earth space, has largely managed to elude us. In fact even the term “space weather” is new; it wasn’t used regularly until the 1990s.

Now, an international project led by China is hoping to advance the study of space weather by light-years in order to minimize the dangerous impact a storm in space might have on us fragile Earthlings.

If experts are correct, there's a chance that a serious space weather threat will arrive sooner rather than later – and the risk to humans is greater than you think.

Oddly, the trouble is that we’ve become too advanced. Because humans today are so dependent upon modern electrical technology, a space storm the size of the one Carrington recorded in 1859 could cause catastrophic problems if it occurred tomorrow. According to a 2008 National Academy of Sciences Report, from long-term electrical blackouts to damage to communication satellites and GPS systems (not to mention billions in financial losses), the results could be devastating worldwide.

Luckily, scientists are hopeful the KuaFu project will prevent (or at least minimize the impact of) this kind of disaster.

Our Eyes on the Sun, The Sun in Our Eyes

Named for Kua Fu, a sun-chasing giant from a Chinese folktale whose pursuit to tame the brightest star in our solar system ended after he died of thirst, the KuaFu project will create a space weather forecasting system 1.5 million kilometers from the Earth's surface. The goal is similar to the one from the legend: to observe changes in solar-terrestrial storms, investigate flows of energy and solar material, and improve the forecasting of space weather.

Not necessarily to tame the sun, but, at least, to understand it.

Proposed in 2003 by scientist Chuanyi Tu from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the project will place three separate satellites at strategic points in our solar system to observe the inner workings of space weather. China's National Space Administration along with the European and Canadian Space Agencies will work together to man them.

“Being aware of the impending blindness to space weather and its effects, we consider a mission like KuaFu absolutely mandatory,” said Dr. Rainer Schwenn, one of the developers of KuaFu. “If 'space weather' keeps being considered an important science goal, then KuaFu is a real key project.”

The satellites will offer an unprecedented ability to glean information about the often tumultuous relationship between the sun and Earth, by allowing scientists to observe both the star and its effects on the planet simultaneously. To now, this process has been viewable only via computer simulation.

“You have to look at the two systems simultaneously [to most accurately forecast space weather]” said Dr. William Liu, a senior scientist at the Canadian Space Agency who took over as project leader when Chuanyi Tu retired two years ago. “It's a real observation; it's what's actually happening.”

Space Storm Showdown: What Do We Do?

So, if the power-grid frying, billion dollar damage-wreaking storm is inevitable, how much will forecasting it actually help?

Lots.

According to Liu, predicting space weather activity can give the operators who maneuver satellites in space the information they need to protect them and us from harm.

For example: If companies know a storm is approaching, it gives them a chance to tweak their loads before their systems descend into chaos and shut off power for, say, the entire East Coast of the United States.

“That's how you prevent catastrophe,” Liu explained. “You reduce the load on the parts that are more sensitive.”

While the project was originally scheduled to be completed this year, Liu’s current estimates put its debut at 2016. Despite the delays, he remains optimistic it will come to fruition, pointing out that international collaborations like this one often stir up scientific and financial challenges that delay the launch process.

Whether the KuaFu project will be able to predict space weather accurately all of the time is up for debate. Liu, however, is confident that, at the very least, it's a step toward that direction .

“With this launch and operation, we'll make our predictions better. Whether it will be 100 percent, that will be too much to ask, but it will definitely improve our knowledge.”

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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