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The Bell Witch of Tennessee

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Near Adams, Tennessee, stands a cave and a historical marker on a farm where the family of John Bell lived in the early 1800s. It was the scene of a series of mysterious manifestations that became known as the Bell Witch haunting.

John Bell, his wife Lucy, their nine children, and a family of slaves moved from North Carolina to Tennessee around 1804. Bell bought up land and eventually accumulated over 300 acres. In 1817, the family began to experience unexplained phenomena that were often centered around Bell's daughter Betsy. They would hear strange tapping and a faint singing voice, identified as that of an old woman, although they couldn't understand the words. The Bell children (three more were born in Tennessee) were awakened at night by something pulling at their bedcovers and sounds of something chewing on the bedposts. John Bell encountered a strange animal in his fields, described as having the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit. Despite nighttime hunting expeditions, they never caught the animal.

As time went on, the family was plagued by loud pounding on the outside of their cabin. Betsy was attacked in her sleep, encounters which left bruises and welts on her face. John Bell told his friend James Johnston about the haunting. Johnston and his wife spent a night in the Bell home and experienced noises and moving objects themselves. As the voice became louder, the family could tell the "witch" was quoting scripture and singing hymns. Over time, she began addressing family members by name. She hated John Bell and vowed to kill him. The witch also spoke to Betsy and warned her against marrying her intended, Joshua Gardner.

The story of the Bell Witch spread through the community, and in 1818, John Bell was excommunicated from his church. The official reason was a charge of usury over a slave sale, but some think the supernatural events were the actual catalyst.

In 1819, General Andrew Jackson paid a visit to the Bell homestead. The three oldest Bell sons had served under Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans, and he had heard the story of the Bell Witch. Jackson had a horse-drawn wagon and several men with him. As they approached the farm, the wagon stopped and the horses could not pull it from its position. After trying to get the wagon going for some time, Jackson exclaimed, "By the eternal, boys, it is the witch." And then …a female voice was heard, saying "All right General, let the wagon move on, I will see you again to-night." And the horses were able to pull the wagon again. Jackson had planned to stay a week, but the group, having experienced more of the witch's attacks overnight, left the Bell farm next day. Accounts exist of this event, but it does not appear in any of Jackson's personal writing.

As time went on, John Bell referred to the witch as "Kate." The rapping, voices, and attacks continued for years. John Bell died in 1820 at the age of 70, and the family found a mysterious vial in the room where Bell's body lay. They fed the liquid inside to the cat, and it immediately died. Then the witch's voice took credit for Bell's death. The witch reportedly laughed and sang constantly during Bell's burial on the farm. A year later, the voice warned Bell's widow Lucy that she would return for more haunting in seven years. Seven years later, in 1828, the manifestation made her last reported appearance, in a discussion with John Bell, Jr. in which the voice predicted the Civil War.

The tales of the Bell Witch haunting were passed down from source to source before being written in an 1894 book, so details vary. It is very likely that the family stories were exaggerated with each retelling. There is some speculation that the manifestations may have been a ruse to break up the relationship between Betsy Bell and her fiancé Joshua Gardner. The witch was strongly opposed to the marriage, and Betsy ended the relationship in 1821 out of fright. In 1824, she married her schoolteacher Richard Powell. Powell had known the family a long time, and some think he may have caused the initial manifestations. Powell began teaching in the area in 1815, and soon developed a liking for Betsy. He became friends with Betsy's parents and was a frequent visitor to the Bell home. It wasn't long after that the mysterious noises began. Powell's first wife died in 1821, the same year Betsy ended her engagement to Gardner.

The Bell Family Cabin (Replica)
Photograph by Flickr user Wayne Hsieh.

Today, you can visit the Bell farm and the nearby cave. An early version of the family's cabin has been recreated on its original spot, and its furnishings are recreations, although there are some actual artifacts on site.

The Historic Bell Witch Cave Sign
Photograph by Flickr user Cameron Daigle.

The most complete early account of the Bell Witch events are in an 1894 book called An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch. It is available online.

See also: The Haunted Plantation
The Happy, Haunted Island of Poveglia
America’s Most Haunted: Six Seriously Spooky Sites
The Haunted Hospital
10 of America’s Most Haunted Cemeteries

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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.