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Jay Paul/Getty Images

Why Did We Just Have a Spring-Like Tornado Outbreak?

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Jay Paul/Getty Images
The remains of a house in Waverly, Virginia, where three people—two men and a child—were killed when a tornado tore through the structure earlier this week. 

The United States is always smack in the middle of some of the most dynamic weather in the world, and conditions this week are living up to that truth. A sprawling storm that covered almost the entire eastern half of the country produced just about every type of weather imaginable this week, including blizzard conditions near Chicago and deadly tornadoes in the southeast.

A snowstorm in the winter is hardly noteworthy, but why are we seeing a spring-like tornado outbreak in February?


Severe weather reports between 7:00 PM EST February 23, 2016, and 1:00 PM EST February 25, 2016. Image credit: Dennis Mersereau

By Wednesday evening, the Storm Prediction Center had received 65 reports of tornadoes across eight states from Texas to Virginia, along with hundreds of reports of winds in excess of 60 mph. Severe thunderstorms even reached as far north as New England, where temperatures climbed into the 60s as a warm front passed through. The storms killed at least seven people, with many more injuries as a result of the tornadoes and damaging winds. Some of the tornadoes were particularly strong, causing extensive damage to towns small and large. One of the tornadoes moved through Pensacola, Florida, on Tuesday, receiving an EF-3 rating on the Enhanced Fujita Scale after meteorologists used the damage there to estimate that winds gusted to at least 155 mph.

Our active weather is the result of a substantial low-pressure system that formed in just the right spot to cause millions of headaches. The system began its life in Texas, growing into a formidable force that measured more than a thousand miles across and extended its reach from the Gulf of Mexico up through interior parts of Canada. Even though it’s winter, when you have a storm that large in our part of the world, it’s bound to cause issues no matter when it forms.

The weather radar on Wednesday evening showed the low-pressure system pinwheeling near the Great Lakes, producing snow in the Midwest and violent thunderstorms along the East Coast. Image credit: Dennis Mersereau

The intensifying low-pressure system dragged warm, humid air north from typically tropical areas and provided the soupy, unstable air mass that thunderstorms need to fuel their ferocity. The high winds through the atmosphere also helped the thunderstorms develop and organize into the intense troublemakers they became.

If you experienced this system, you know that the winds were just ripping on Tuesday and Wednesday. The stiff southerly breeze at the surface veered clockwise with height, blowing even stronger from the west tens of thousands of feet above the surface. This vertical twisting of the winds allows thunderstorms that develop to begin rotating, sometimes leading to tornadoes. Stronger instability and stronger wind shear can foster stronger tornadoes, and that’s what we saw this week.

The storm is a reminder that we’re approaching the time of the year where violent thunderstorms will become more common than heavy snow and ice. A tornado outbreak during the winter isn’t common, but it’s also not unprecedented. We’re so used to hearing about “tornado season” that we forget that tornadoes are possible any time of the year—they’re just more common in certain spots during different seasons. The traditional tornado season runs from late March through late June, affecting what’s known as Dixie Alley (think Alabama and Mississippi) first in March and April, with the threat shifting to the central Plains (states like Oklahoma and Kansas) in May and June.

A map of all documented tornadoes that touched down during the month of February between 1950 and 2014. Image credit: Dennis Mersereau

Many of the recent tornadoes occurred along the northern Gulf Coast, which is about where you would expect them to happen in February. The majority of tornadoes we’ve seen during the second month of the year have touched down along and east of the Mississippi River. However, it was very unusual to see such an intense severe weather outbreak in the Mid-Atlantic. Virginia has only recorded about a dozen tornadoes in February between 1950 and 2014, none of which would be considered strong. The region saw numerous tornadoes during this outbreak, not to mention hundreds of reports of wind damage as far north as Maine, which is a feat that’s hard to accomplish even during springtime outbreaks.

Despite the unusual nature of this early tornado outbreak, take some comfort in the knowledge that it’s probably not an omen of the year to come. Tornadoes require so many dynamic forces to come together just right that it’s hard to predict more than a week ahead of time whether or not they’ll form at all. Regardless of whether a season is quiet or active, every tornado is dangerous if it’s coming toward you. Always pay attention, and always have a plan.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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