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We Have a Week of Wild Weather Ahead of Us

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A kinky jet stream will bring a week of extreme weather to the United States, promising a grab-bag of atmospheric excitement that ranges from mountain snows and Plains tornadoes to the East Coast’s first decent heat wave of the season. The coming storm systems exemplify the feast-or-famine nature of springtime weather, especially as we get closer to the peak of tornado season at the beginning of June. You might either be begging the sky for a little water in your garden or sprinting for your basement as yet another tornado warning blares from your cell phone.

Most of the significant weather events we experience throughout the year are the result of the jet stream, a fast-moving river of air that generally makes itself at home around 30,000 feet above sea level. It doesn’t seem like winds roaring along six miles above our heads can make much of a difference on the ground, but winds that blow in the middle- and upper-levels of the atmosphere are the driving force behind just about every major weather feature.

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A weather model image showing the trough over the Rockies and the strong ridge over the East Coast.
A weather model image showing the trough over the Rockies and the strong ridge over the East Coast. This image shows the 500 millibar level, which is about 18,000 feet above sea level.
Pivotal Weather

These upper-level patterns are the reason it’s going to get toasty along the East Coast this week. High temperatures in the 90s are likely as far north as New England as a ridge of high pressure builds in place. Ridges, or northerly kinks in the jet stream, are the reason heat waves can get so intense. Ridges foster subsidence, or sinking air that clears the sky of clouds and makes the air quite toasty. The buildup of air at the surface leads to the formation of a high-pressure center. The more intense the high-pressure, the more intense the heat wave. It’s neither uncommon nor unprecedented to see summer-like heat in May, but it’s still uncomfortable nonetheless. The heat will be accompanied by humidity on Thursday and Friday, so those high temperatures hovering around the 90°F mark will feel even warmer thanks to the heat index.

Ridges are resilient. They don’t like to budge once they form, and this often leads to unsettled weather along the outer periphery of high-pressure systems. Several troughs will dig south out of the Rocky Mountains this week and lead to multiple opportunities for severe weather and heavy rain in the Plains and Upper Midwest. Significant severe weather is possible on Tuesday in the area traditionally known as Tornado Alley—storms from western Texas through western Nebraska could produce some violent tornadoes on Tuesday afternoon. More severe thunderstorms are possible in the central United States toward the end of the week.

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The rainfall forecast through May 23, 2017
The Weather Prediction Center’s rainfall forecast through May 23, 2017
Dennis Mersereau

One the storms are finished tormenting the central Plains, they’ll continue raining as they travel around the edge of the heat dome over the East Coast. NOAA’s Weather Prediction Center expects that two to four inches of rain will fall across a swath of land from central Texas to Lake Superior, falling over areas that really don’t need rain these days. Rivers in the Midwest are still trying to recover from flooding rains earlier this month. Any additional heavy rainfall will make the situation worse. Precipitation at higher elevations in the Rocky Mountains will fall in the form of snow, with mountain peaks possibly seeing several feet of snow before the weather settles back down.

The lack of rain is making things worse in Florida, where the resilience of the ridge and prolonged summer-like heat will send Florida and Georgia deeper into drought. While the rest of the country has largely recovered from any sort of lasting drought, the extreme southeast hasn’t been so lucky.

Large sections of Florida were in a severe or extreme drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor’s update on May 11. The dryness isn’t only affecting agriculture—it’s also allowing wildfires to quickly spread out of control.

A lightning strike at the beginning of April sparked the West Mims Fire, a blaze located right on the border between Florida and Georgia northwest of Jacksonville, Florida. Officials reported on May 15 that the fire had burned about 237 square miles of land—an area more than three times larger than Washington D.C.—and was only 18 percent contained. Crews likely won’t receive any natural help in fighting the fire until the weekend, when the stubborn weather pattern breaks and showers and thunderstorms are once again possible.

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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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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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