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6 Elaborate Plots to Prevent Tornadoes 

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Each year, the central part of America known as Tornado Alley is at the mercy of Mother Nature. Powerful twisters tear across the landscape, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction. In 2013, more than 800 tornadoes were reported in the U.S., and at least 50 people were killed.

What if we could prevent tornadoes from forming altogether? Temple University physicist Rongjia Tao thinks we can. His plan comes in the form of three 1000-foot tall “great walls” built at strategic points through Tornado Alley. In a paper published in the International Journal of Modern Physics B, Tao explains that tornadoes spawn when northbound warm air meets southbound cold air to form supercells. These storms turn into tornadoes roughly 30 percent of the time. The walls, which would run east to west and be about as thick as a football field is wide, would “weaken or block such air mass clashes and therefore diminish the major tornado threat in the Tornado Alley forever,” Tao says.

Weather experts were quick to debunk the idea, but it’s not our first harebrained attempt at preventing tornadoes.

1. Giant walls around cities, 1896

A man named David Wechsler suggested that, since steel-framed buildings seem to survive tornado-strength winds, giant steel walls could be built to the west of big cities to serve as “windbreakers” that would offer “protection against the weather as old-time towns were walled against human foes."

2. Metal towers packed with explosives, 1897

For a long time, we were fascinated by the idea that we could blow tornadoes up. A French inventor called Turpin suggested the construction of a series of 120-foot tall towers topped with 200 pounds of explosives and a windmill device to measure wind strength. When the wind picked up to tornado-like speeds, the tower tops would explode and “destroy the tornado at once.”

3. Missiles, 1953

Col. Rollin H. Mayer with the American Meteorological Society suggested we build a tornado-detecting network that used radar and tracking data to warn us of an approaching storm. Reasonable enough. Then when the network spotted a tornado, “jet planes with tornado-destruction missiles would be standing by to destroy tornadoes before they destroy us.”

4. Cloud-seeding, 1958

One idea was to seed storm areas with “condensation nuclei,” or cloud seeds. These are tiny particles (usually silver iodide, potassium iodide, or dry ice) that facilitate rain and other forms of precipitation by letting water cling to them and go from vapor to liquid. Morris Tepper, a tornado expert, wrote in Scientific American that using cloud-seeding could “soften the fury” of a tornado by weakening the updrafts that feed them.

Actually, it can’t do much to prevent tornadoes, but the U.S. has attempted to use cloud-seeding to reduce the size of hailstones produced in storms. People also use it to reduce fog surrounding airports and to encourage snow near ski resorts.

5. Jet engines, 1972

An article appeared in MIT's Technology Review in 1972 suggesting we create "hot spots" to weaken tornadoes by affixing jet engines to the ground that would blow a bunch of hot air upwards. The theory was that the updraft could create clouds and maybe rain to suck energy from the storm. Minor downside: The jet engines could also accidentally create their own tornadoes.

6. Microwave-blasting satellites, 2000

A physicist in California named Bernard Eastlund has proposed launching massive solar-powered satellites into space that would spot thunderstorms and then blast them with microwaves. This would heat the storms and prevent funnel clouds from forming. “I want to snip off the energy that is feeding the formation of the tornado,” Eastlund says.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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