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Adam Greig

The Day the Mountain of Fire Was Born

Original image
Adam Greig

Photograph by Flickr user Adam Greig.

Eldfell is Icelandic for “mountain of fire.” The volcano named Eldfell came into being suddenly on January 23, 1973. It was a sight to see, but dangerous to be around. The people of Heimaey didn’t abandon their island home to the volcano, however. They made it work for them.

Photograph by Bruce McAdam.

Heimaey is a 13.4 square kilometer island just off the southern coast of Iceland. The name means “home island.” It is the largest and only populated island of the volcanic archipelago named Vestmannaeyjar, or “Westman Islands.” The newest island, Surtsey, is the product of a volcanic eruption in 1963. At the beginning of 1973, Heimaey was home to around 5,300 people, mostly clustered in the town of Vestmannaeyjar near Heimaey Harbor, at the north end of the island.

Seismographs on the Icelandic mainland picked up small tremors underneath Heimaey on January 21 and 22, but they were small and unnoticed by the residents. Then at 1:55 AM on the 23rd, the island opened up. A fissure opened up barely east of town and grew to two kilometers long, cracking the island from coast to coast. Lava spewed upward as far as three kilometers.

Photograph by Svienn Eirikksen, Vestmannaeyjar fire chief, via the U.S. Geological Survey.

Due to recent bad weather, almost the entire fishing fleet of Heimaey was in port and able to help with evacuating the island’s citizens. They were summoned by fire engine sirens to the port. The Icelandic State Civil Defence Organisation swung into action, sending boats over the four nautical miles from the mainland to evacuate people. By daybreak, most of the people were off the island. Hospital patients and the elderly were taken off by plane, and the evacuation was complete by the end of the day.

But the eruption continued. The line of lava fountains settled down to just two in a couple of days, and by February 6 only one remained, which built itself up into Eldfall volcano. In addition to lava, the volcano spewed huge amounts of tephra, which is ash, cinders, and rocks. Millions of tons of tephra rained down on Heimaey, setting some buildings on fire and burying others. About 400 buildings and homes were destroyed, a third of the island’s structures.

The lava flowed for five months, until July 3. Pretty soon after the evacuation, townspeople noticed that the huge lava flow was headed in the direction of the harbor. Heimaey Harbor was known as the best harbor in Iceland, a hub for fisherman and the backbone of commerce on the island. Iceland took on a huge and risky project to stop the lava and save the harbor. Vestmannaeyjar firemen sprayed water on the advancing lava with firehoses. The Fire Chief of the Keflavík International Airport, the University of Iceland, and various groups came together to devise a plan to bring more water to the lava. Pumps were brought in from Iceland and other nations, The dredging boat Sandey was brought in on March first, and not only sprayed the lava, but brought pipes to lay across the crust of the lava to take water where it was needed.

Where the lava stopped. Photograph by Richard S. Williams, Jr., U.S. Geological Survey.

By March 26, additional pumping equipment was shipped in from the United States. Three months of pumping huge amounts of seawater onto the lava finally stopped its progress toward the harbor. By the time pumping stopped in the middle of May, the pumps had begun to wear out. It is estimated that 6.2 million metric tonnes of seawater had been sprayed on the lava of Eldfell, which left 220 thousand metric tonnes of salt. The lava cooling project was wound down in June of 1973. The harbor was saved.

Graphic by Islander.

By the time the river of lava stopped, it had added another 20% to the area of Heimaey Island. The extra basalt around the edges of the harbor actually improved it, by providing a wall of shelter against the rough sea. Around 4,000 of the island’s inhabitants returned to rebuild and resume their lives on Heimaey.

Photograph by Flickr user globetrotter_rodrigo.

The lava-cooling project led directly to another project that perfectly illustrates making lemonade out of lemons. In 1983, a new 5 megawatt heat-exchanger plant was opened on Heimaey to heat the homes of Vestmannaeyjar. It had been planned since 1974, with the design approved in 1979. The plant takes heat from the still-warm lava by spraying water on it and collecting the steam that rises as a result. The steam heats a water-circulating system that is connected to the town. It was the world’s first geothermal system to take advantage of the heat from lava.

Eldfell is the brown hill on the right. Helgafell, an older volcano, is the hill on the left. The original fissure is in black, and the town of Vestmannaeyjar is in the background. Photograph by Wirthi.

In 2006, excavations began to unearth the homes of Heimaey that had been buried in ash for 30 years. At least one of the excavated homes is the centerpiece of Eldheimar, a museum dedicated to the 1973 eruption, set up in Vestmannaeyjar near Eldfell.

In case you have heard of Heimaey, but didn’t know about the volcano, it may have been because it was the home of Keiko the killer whale, the star of the movie Free Willy, who was taken there in 1998 after living in Oregon for two years.

This article was inspired by a post at Metafilter.

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.