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Making Snow with Hot Water and Other Frozen Phenomena

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Much of North America is experiencing the coldest temperatures in twenty years. They call this a polar vortex, in which Arctic air currents sweep further south than usual. Today is supposed to be the coldest day of the vortex. For now. Temperatures fell so fast that reports came in across Canada of frostquakes, which occur when groundwater freezes so fast that it cracks the frozen ground. They make a lot of noise, but don't cause much damage. Other strange things occur when the temperature falls this far and this fast.

Last year, Yan at Geeks Are Sexy made a video demonstrating what happens when you throw boiling water into the air when it's very cold outside. At the time, in Ontario, the temperature was -13°F (-25°C). He explained,

Oh, and for those who are wondering why you need to use hot water, well, hot water evaporates more quickly than cold water since it’s already closer to the point of evaporation, so when it hits cold air in the form of tiny droplets of liquid, it just turns into snow and water vapor.

He also added a warning to be careful throwing, lest the hot water fall on you. The transformation may seem instantaneous, but it does take a little time. There are other such videos, like a demonstration from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, where the temperature was -30°C (-22°F), and another from Alaska at -40° (C&F). They even try this stunt at -52°C in Oymyakon, Russia.

In fact, the trick had become so common that this year, chrisgsauce had to step up the game a bit to go viral. When the temperature dipped to -41° in South Porcupine, Ontario, last week, he loaded the hot water into a Super Soaker!

You can see almost the same type of reaction on a larger scale when a hot springs geyser erupts in the recent extremely cold temperatures in Iceland.

Eruption, water vapor, snowfall, and no water. Cool, huh?

The problem with stunts like this is that people try to recreate it without taking the proper precautions. Suddenly, the latest deep freeze has given that opportunity to Americans who have never dealt with temperatures this low. In their excitement, many actually burned themselves with the hot water. At least 50 Tweets related the same story.

Unlike Canadians, few of the new experimenters used a pair of weatherproof gloves -and they probably haven't ever played with boiling water before. Couple that with the fact that it isn't quite -40 degrees in most of the United States, and throwing boiling water into the air doesn't seem so safe anymore.

In Chicago, Micah Uetricht tried the experiment because the wind chill was 30 below, but that isn't the same as the real air temperature. And stepping out on the balcony without proper outdoor clothing is asking for trouble. Video contains some NSFW language.

A much safer experiment for those of us in the lower 48 would be to blow soap bubbles and see how fast they freeze. As thin as that soap membrane is, it doesn't take long in cold air!

In the weird case of the "ice serpents" emerging from this pipe, a lot of rain fell, which filled the pipe, then the temperature dropped quickly. As the water froze, it was pushed out of a hole in the pipe, creating the weirdly beautiful structures. Photograph by Ninja Viking

This is what happens when a building catches on fire during a deep freeze. This warehouse in Chicago burned last January, and required plenty of water from the Chicago Fire Department to extinguish it. However, with the temperature at around 10°F, the water froze as soon as it did its job. See more pictures here. Photograph by Robert R Gigliotti of RPGPhotography.

So if you're going to go out and have fun in the snow, dress warmly, and take the necessary precautions before you experiment!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]