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New York City’s Mad Bomber and His Patriotic Break

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On November 16, 1940, an unattended wooden toolbox was discovered on a windowsill in the Consolidated Edison Company building at 4 Irving Place in Manhattan. The headquarters of the utility giant is huge, taking up an entire block, and it was bustling that day. No one had seen who left the box behind, where they had come from, or where they went. When it was opened, workers discovered a small homemade pipe bomb. Around the outside of the device was a note, hand-written in neat block lettering:

“CON EDISON CROOKS, THIS IS FOR YOU."

The workers who discovered it called the police.

The NYPD bomb squad, which had just lost two of its officers in July as they tried to defuse a bomb planted in the British Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, concluded that the device was a dud -- perhaps an intentional one, since the bomber’s note would have been destroyed in the explosion. Investigators found no fingerprints on either the bomb or the box and no other clues as to who left it. A check of Con Ed’s records for recently dismissed employees or others who might have had a grudge yielded no leads, so the investigation was closed, and the incident was forgotten.

The next year, another bomb, wrapped in a wool sock, was found lying on 19th Street just a few blocks from the Con Ed building. This one was also a dud, and its crude alarm-clock detonator had not been wound. There was no note, but the bomb squad investigators recognized the construction as similar to the first Con Ed bomb. They wondered if it was the same person, and whether the would-be bomber had simply aborted their plan before getting to the offices. Again, there were no leads, so police shelved the case for more pressing matters.

Months later, as the U.S. prepared to enter World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a package arrived at NYPD headquarters. It was from the bomber, but it wasn’t another explosive. Rather, it was news that they would be retiring for the war. Written in the same neat block letters as the note on the first bomb, it read:

"I WILL MAKE NO MORE BOMB UNITS FOR THE DURATION OF THE WAR—MY PATRIOTIC FEELINGS HAVE MADE ME DECIDE THIS—LATER I WILL BRING THE CON EDISON TO JUSTICE—THEY WILL PAY FOR THEIR DASTARDLY DEEDS."

It was signed with the initials F.P. Whoever they were, F.P. stayed true to their word: No bombs were planted for the duration of the war, or for several years after.

The peace ended on March 29, 1950, when a third unexploded bomb was found in Grand Central Station. Its construction was similar to the Con Ed bombs, but more sophisticated. The bomber, investigators thought, had used his downtime to hone his craft.

Later that year, the string of duds ended, and were replaced by well-made devices that actually blew up. Several people suffered minor injuries when a bomb exploded in a Grand Central Station bathroom. Five were hurt when one detonated at a screening of White Christmas at Radio City Music Hall. An elderly bathroom attendant was seriously injured when yet another device, planted in a restroom at Grand Central, exploded. And six more people were hurt -- three seriously -- by a bomb tucked inside a seat at Brooklyn’s Paramount Theater.

In all, the Mad Bomber (as the public and newspapers started calling F.P.) planted 33 bombs over a 16-year period. Twenty-two of them exploded, injuring 15 people.

With help from a Manhattan criminal psychiatrist, the police were able to work up a profile of the bomber. A secretary at Con Ed later cracked the case wide open by connecting details the bomber mentioned in a letter to a newspaper with an accident at one of the company’s plants two decades prior. This led police to George Metesky, a former Con Ed boiler cleaner who’d been injured on the job, fired, and denied disability benefits. When police knocked on his door, Metesky, a short, older gentleman in a bathrobe, answered, “I think I know why you fellows are here. You think I’m the Mad Bomber.”

Metesky calmly and politely confessed to the bombings, explaining that F.P. stood for “fair play." Police found a workshop in his garage where he had built his bombs, as well as plans for an even bigger device that he was going to plant in the New York Coliseum. Metesky was declared unfit to stand trial and committed to the Matteawan Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Beacon, NY. He was unresponsive to treatment -- he believed the psychiatrists were part of a conspiracy against him -- but was otherwise a model patient who spent most of his time trying to secure a jury trial so he could air his grievances with Con Ed. In conversations with the psychiatrist who helped capture him, Metesky claimed that he deliberately planned the blasts to avoid any fatalities, and regretted that he had hurt people. Upon his release from Matteawan in 1973, the Mad Bomber went back to his family's Connecticut home, where he died in 1994 at the age of 90.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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