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13 Disturbing News Stories You Probably Missed

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One of the biggest news stories of 2012 has been the so-called Miami Zombie attack, where one man—theorized to be on bath salts—attacked a homeless man and gnawed on his face. But lots of other terrifying things happened all over the world this year that didn’t get nearly so much coverage. Read on.

1. Macabre Black Market

In Thailand, a British citizen, Chow Hok Kuen, was caught attempting to smuggle something very horrifying into Taiwan: six dried human fetuses covered in gold leaf, tattoos, and spiritual adornments.

Kuen bought the fetuses from a reseller and intended to turn them over for a profit in Taiwan, where the corpses, created in a “black magic spirit ritual,” are thought by some to bring good luck; because of this, a black market has developed for them. Authorities were unable to determine the exact source of the fetuses.

2. Not Your Grandma's Finger Sandwich

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Ryan Hart, a 14-year-old boy from Michigan, lived out a real-life urban legend when he found a severed finger in his Arby’s roast beef sandwich. Reportedly, Hart had nearly finished his sandwich when he “tasted something rubbery” and spat out a partial human finger.

According to the restaurant, a female employee had cut off her finger while slicing roast beef and neglected to immediately tell anyone. Other employees had unknowingly packaged the order and served it to Hart.

3. The Family Cook

A Los Angeles restaurant chef, currently on trial for his wife’s murder, admitted to police in a taped interview that he had not only killed her, but also disposed of her body in a very gruesome manner.

On the tape played for jurors, David Viens told police that the reason they had been unable to find his wife’s remains was because he had boiled her corpse in a 55-gallon drum of water, leaving only her skull behind.

4. Death At A Funeral

A 2-year-old boy who tragically succumbed to pneumonia in Belem, Brazil terrified his family when, one hour before his funeral, he sat up and asked his father for a glass of water. The boy, who had been dead since the day before, hadn’t shown any other signs of life during his wake or funeral preparations.

Sadly, when the boy laid back down again, the family was unable to rouse him a second time—so medical officials had to declare him dead once again. They were unable to explain his mysterious reanimation, and the child was buried later that evening.

5. Special Delivery

Ottawa, Canada police were baffled when a human foot was delivered to the Conservative party headquarters in a blood-spattered package. Weirder still, a few hours later, a severed hand was found in a similar container at a mail sorting facility, though its destination was never officially stated.

As if that weren’t enough, however, Montreal police also reported a strange case of human remains. Literally. A suitcase containing a human torso was found outside an apartment building the same day. Although a connection between the three parts was suspected, no official link has been acknowledged.

6. Night School

A literacy teacher in St. Petersburg, FL was jailed after she was caught encouraging teenagers to cut and burn themselves as part of a nighttime exorcism ritual conducted at the St. Petersburg Pier.

According to police, the teacher instructed the students to cut themselves to drive demons out of their bodies, and then to cauterize the wounds, using heated keys or even perfume as a makeshift fuel, to keep them from returning. The true motive behind the ritual is unknown.

7. Equine Attacks

Throughout 2012, a series of bizarre horse murders have been occurring in the English countryside. In January, a 2-year-old stallion was found dead, with his eyes, teeth, and genitals mutilated. Months later, in May, a pregnant mare was also found mutilated after being attacked with a blunt object. She died after giving birth to a stillborn foal. Finally, a few days after, a third horse was found beheaded on a beach, marked with a cross topped with a gull’s head.

No link has been made between the three cases, although locals in each instance claim that black magic or Satanism is somehow involved.

8. Neighborhood Hot Spot

If asked to list places in the world that might have secret nuclear reactors holding weapons-grade Uranium, you’d probably name countries like North Korea or Iran. One place you’d be neglecting, however, is the Eastman Kodak plant in Rochester, New York, a city with a population of more than 200,000 people.

Up until 2007, when it was decommissioned, Kodak operated the reactor for research purposes, and while they didn’t necessarily cover it up (it was on record with the federal government), they weren’t public about it, either. Local and state governments were unaware that the reactor existed—until it came out after the company went bankrupt early in 2012.

9. Ritual of Horror

An apparent drug-fueled ritual in Mexico ended with a 5-year-old boy severely wounded. According to authorities, the participants held the ceremony because they believed that a large earthquake would soon bring about the end of the world.

After ingesting unspecified drugs and reciting a group prayer, the boy’s own mother gouging her son's eyes out at the climax of the ritual. In the end, eight people were arrested by police—several of them members of the boy’s family.

10. Take That, Officers

In Hackensack, New Jersey, police were called to the home of a man threatening himself with a knife. When they arrived, they found Wayne Carter, a mentally ill man who had been unable to receive proper treatment and was living in a room in his brother’s home.

When police attempted to subdue Carter, he horrifyingly cut open his own abdomen and began throwing his intestines and hunks of skin at the officers, saying that he was “going to die today” and “going to heaven.” Despite a self-inflicted partial disembowelment, Carter survived.

11. The Disappearing Toxic Package

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At a U.S. Postal Service sorting facility in Orlando, Florida, employees discovered a mysterious package leaking a brown, sticky chemical and covered in tubes and wires. According to its return address, the parcel came from Yemen. Jeffrey Lill, the shift supervisor, had the facility evacuated and moved the package to a hazardous materials zone.

Soon after, Lill became sick, suffering from fatigue, tremors, and neurological issues, all consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals. The Postal Service, however, claims the events never happened and that no such package ever existed. Even after other employees and documents confirmed Lill’s story, the Postal Service still denies the incident. Doctors have so far been unable to determine Lill’s exact illness.

12. Out for Some Air

In South Los Angeles, police received a call about something very out of the ordinary—a pair of what appeared to be lungs were left in the middle of a sidewalk and had apparently been “sitting out there all day long.”

Initially, it was unknown if the lungs came from a human or animal, or if they were even lungs at all. Tests later determined that they were lungs and they did come from an animal, but authorities considered them to be “not of forensic value” and disposed of them. The type of animal the lungs belonged to and how they ended up on the sidewalk in the middle of the day were never determined.

13. Nails for Hair

Memphis resident Shanyna Isom was given steroids for an allergy attack in 2009, a totally standard treatment. For the last three years, however, her body has undergone one of the strangest allergic reactions in medical history.

All of the hair follicles on Isom’s body have begun to create 12 times the normal amount of skin cells. Now, the hair on her head and body has instead been replaced with human nails, rendering her unable to walk or even sit up. Her doctors have been completely stumped, but a variety of treatments have improved her condition to a small degree and she is now able to walk with a cane.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]