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Watercooler Ammo: Is Karr the killer?

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Remember how we said that August 16 was an excellent day for arresting murderers?

We swear, we didn't have any inside information.

Although, now that we look at the facts, we should have known something was up three years ago, when two judges declared that JonBenet Ramsey was probably killed by an intruder, and -- more significantly, perhaps -- scientists sequenced crime-scene DNA belonging to an "unknown male."

Now investigators have to figure out whether John Mark Karr's confession to Thai officials is real, or whether he's a sicko of a different kind -- a pedophile who became so obsessed with the case that he wanted to be a part of it. So far, here's what we can turn up to suggest that Karr is faking:

  • His ex-wife, Laura, told a TV reporter that she spent the entire 1996 Christmas season with her then-husband at home in Alabama. (JonBenet was killed the day after Christmas.) She also said that Karr was obsessed with the case and had researched it intensively, which could be evidence either way.
  • Karr also may have spent time that Christmas with his brother, who was living in Georgia at the time. JonBenet, of course, was killed in Boulder, Colorado.
  • Some details from the murder scene suggest the killer had inside information on the family. (For instance, the ransom note -- which we've posted after the jump -- demands $118,000, which is roughly the amount of John Ramsey's Christmas bonus from that year.) It's unclear how, or even if, Karr knew the Ramseys.

Picture 12.pngOn the other hand, if Karr does turn out to be the "Real Killer," investigators have two ways of proving it -- a DNA match, or, according to this article, seeing just how much their suspect knows:

"There are a lot of facts about her actual death that the public does not know," [author Lawrence] Schiller said. "If he did confess to some facts of the murder, to reveal those facts of the case, that would finish the puzzle." Among the facts he said were not generally known was the murder weapon and what the killer did with it.

They'll probably also want to see if Karr's handwriting resembles the garbled ransom note left at the scene. After the jump, we've reprinted it -- or you can check out the Smoking Gun's collection of case documents, a huge story from the Observer about detectives trying to crack the case (written just two months ago), and Karr's genuinely creepy teaching resume.



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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]