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7 Common Causes of Death During Winter Storms

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Death is not a pleasant topic of conversation. Yet we’ve all confronted our own mortality at some point, and it’s not uncommon to wonder how we’ll ultimately shuffle off this mortal coil. Hopefully your time is later rather than sooner, but not everybody is so lucky. As the dead of winter slowly creeps toward us, so too will an unfortunate spate of accidents that will claim a significant number of our hemispheric colleagues. Here are some of the ways foul winter weather can do you in, and what you can do to stop your number from coming up this season.


The vast majority of people who die in winter storms perish as the result of car accidents. A 2015 study from the University of Georgia noted that winter storms directly claimed 571 lives between 1996 and 2011; however, this number jumps to a staggering 13,852 deaths over the same period if you include car and plane crashes caused by winter storms.

It’s easy to say that the best way to prevent injury or death during a winter storm is to just stay home, but that’s not an economic reality for millions of people who have to trudge to work regardless of snow and ice. If you ever have to venture out during a winter storm, try to take more heavily-traveled routes if possible, since highway crews treat those roadways first. Make sure you have emergency supplies in your car—food, water, a way to stay warm, a cell phone charger, a full tank of gas, batteries, flashlights, a first aid kit, a shovel, and litter or sand for tire traction—in case you get stuck for a long period of time.

If your vehicle starts to slide on ice, take your foot off both the gas and the brake, gently steering into the direction the back of your car is sliding; if the back of your car is sliding left, gently turn left to correct. If you’re involved in a pileup accident, stay in your car until the coast is clear, then quickly get as far off the side of the road as possible. Pileup accidents, or accidents that involve many cars (sometimes hundreds) at once, are a significant hazard during winter storms.


Slipping on an icy sidewalk or driveway is almost a rite of passage for people who grow up in colder climates. It seems like we all know somebody who broke an arm or a leg when they fell victim to gravity during or after a winter storm. These slips aren’t always just broken bones, and falling the wrong way can critically injure or even kill you.

If you have to venture across an icy surface, sprinkle salt, sand, or cat litter ahead of you to give you some traction as you walk. If none is available, walk with a flat foot. We normally walk heel-toe, heel-toe, which puts all of your body weight on a small part of your foot, leaving you susceptible to slipping. If you walk with a flat foot (like a penguin), you spread your weight out over a larger area and give yourself more control.


Shoveling snow is a grueling exercise that can leave you sore and gasping for air after a couple of scoops. Powdery snow doesn’t weigh much at all, but a nice shovel full of heavy, wet snow can weigh more than 20 pounds. Do that a few dozen times to clear your sidewalk, and you’re going to be hurting tomorrow.

Doing that kind of strenuous activity can wreak havoc on your body; the Cleveland Clinic reports that shoveling snow sends more than 11,000 people to the hospital every year. While most of those injuries are caused by the act of shoveling itself, many of them are victims of heart attacks from the strenuous, sudden exercise. To prevent injury, make sure you stretch before shoveling snow, and take frequent breaks while you’re clearing it away. Keep your hands at least a foot apart on the shovel's handle, keeping one hand as close to the blade as you can comfortably hold it. Try to push the snow (like a snow plow) when possible to minimize strain. If you know you have health issues, it's best to find or hire someone else to shovel snow for you.


Your mother didn’t tell you to wear your coat for nothing. Prolonged exposure to cold weather can force your body temperature dangerously low, a condition known as hypothermia. Hypothermia is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment in order to fully recover. If left unchecked, it can quickly kill you.

Hypothermia is a silent killer; most of the people who succumb to this weather-induced condition are ill or elderly, and many of the thousands of hypothermia deaths every year go almost unnoticed compared to folks who die in events like tornadoes or hurricanes.

You can protect yourself from hypothermia by making sure you’re always prepared for extreme cold by having emergency supplies like coats, blankets, and heat sources in your home and vehicle. If you have plans to venture outdoors, keep up with current forecasts to ensure that you’re not caught outside during a major cold snap. Also make sure you check on your elderly or susceptible neighbors during cold weather, and help them out if you can.


The danger of falling through thin ice is closely tied to hypothermia. It’s common for still bodies of water to develop a layer of ice during bouts of bitterly cold temperatures, but that ice is often much weaker than it looks. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (and Minnesota would know), it takes at least four inches of solid ice to be able to walk across it without falling through. The ice should be at least five inches thick to drive a snowmobile or ATV across, and it needs to be about a foot thick in order to safely drive across it in a personal vehicle like a car or truck.


It doesn’t take much ice or snow to put enormous stress on trees or power lines. It only takes a few inches of wet snow, or a quarter of an inch of ice accretion, to cause weaker branches and power lines to fall. Higher amounts of wintry precipitation can cause even stronger objects to break, and a major winter storm can bring down even the mightiest trees and metal transformer towers. Make sure you keep trees and large limbs away from your house, and don’t walk underneath anything sagging or leaning under the weight of snow or ice.

It’s not just falling trees or power lines that can cause you harm; falling ice itself can weigh as much as a large rock and hit the ground with enough velocity to kill you instantly. This is a major problem around skyscrapers, where officials may have to close entire city blocks to foot and vehicle traffic due to ice falling from great heights.


Last but not least, even your own home or local grocery store isn’t immune from the weight of frozen water. Extreme amounts of snow, ice, and standing water on a building’s roof can strain the structure to the point of failure. This is especially common in commercial buildings with large, flat roofs (like box stores or warehouses), but it can also happen to homes with existing structural issues. The best way to make sure the roof doesn’t cave in on you is to make sure your home or building is structurally sound, and try to (safely) clear away any snow and ice that could stress the building to the point of failure.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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