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8 Extreme Weather Events As Seen From Space

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Most of us have seen at least one extreme weather event in our lives. But no matter how things look from the ground, these events look drastically different, even surprisingly peaceful, from above. Here are some of the biggest weather events of the last few decades, as seen from space.

1. Hurricane Katrina

Most of us remember the severe devastation Hurricane Katrina (top image) caused, and it’s easy to see why the storm presented so many problems when seen from above—the arms of the hurricane expanded across most of the Gulf of Mexico. When this image was taken on August 28, 2005, winds in the storm were recorded traveling at about 160 mph.

Katrina was not only one of the five deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history—it was also the most expensive natural disaster in the country's history, causing more than $108 billion in damages.

2. Superstorm Sandy

Just last year, the Floss headquarters was closed for weeks thanks to this massive hurricane that caused over $75 billion in damage. 

3. Ireland and Britain’s Winter of 2009-2010

While not due to one storm in particular, the winter of 2009 through 2010 was unusually cold throughout Europe, earning the season the title of “The Big Freeze.” This satellite image from January 7, 2010 shows the extent of snow covering over England and Scotland.

4. Snowmageddon

Europe wasn’t the only area hit hard by winter that season. On February 5, 2010, the North Atlantic coast was hit by a category 3 (major) blizzard. Up to 35 inches of snow was dropped on the East Coast of the U.S. The area was already suffering from the effects of a blizzard that had occurred in December, and when another category 3 blizzard happened only a few days later, bringing another 20 inches of snow, the media began pronouncing the event “snowpocalypse,” “snoverkill” and “snowmageggon.” Catchy nicknames aside, the storms resulted in the snowiest winter on record for much of the Mid-Atlantic, which is easy to imagine given how much snow is visible in this satellite image taken on February 11.

5. Cyclone Gafilo

While it might not be as famous as many of the other storms on this list, 2004’s Cyclone Gafilo is the most intense cyclone to ever form in the south-western Indian Ocean and the strongest cyclone to strike Madagascar. With winds reaching over 185 miles per hour, the storm caused more than $250 million in damages and resulted in 172 deaths.

This image shows the cyclone on March 6, after it reached peak speed and was about to strike northwest Madagascar.

6. 2009's Australian Sandstorm

When someone says “extreme weather,” you probably think of wet conditions, but when high winds hit sand, they can result in massive dust storms that can be just as intense as a blizzard. In September of 2009, a dust storm hit Eastern Australia, sweeping dirt and debris across New South Wales and Queensland. Typically, air particle concentrations register at 20 micrograms per cubic meter of air. During bushfires, the air particle concentration raises to about 500 micrograms per cubic meter. So you can imagine how concentrated the dust must have been for the air concentration levels to reach 15,400 during the storm. It’s been estimated that the storm carried over 16 million tons of dust from the desert to the coast, at a peak level of 75,000 tons per hour.

7. 2003 Firestorm

Many would hesitate to call wildfires a weather event, but in most cases, weather is at least partially responsible. This was definitely the case in the California wildfires of October 2003, where over 15 wildfires broke out throughout Southern California and Baja, Mexico. I was in San Diego when the fires first broke out and there was so much thick, white ash in the air that even 20 miles from the fires, it looked like the roads were covered in snow.

8. 2007 Wildfires

I was also present for the 2007 California wildfires, which were a result of many of the same weather conditions as the 2003 fires, which have become a seasonal problem for the region.

Were any of you witness to these events, or do you have any extreme weather stories of your own? While everyone loves a good story, you might consider yourself lucky if your answer is “no” this time.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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