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How To Get Out of Jury Duty

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The Easy Way: Be Famous
Hey, we didn't say anything about this being the easily accessible way. But, if you are blessed with the sort of fame that leads media types to follow your every move, then chances are, you won't ever get chosen for jury duty. Why? Frankly, your presence would be distracting in the courtroom. In 2003, for instance, Bill Clinton was called in as Prospective Juror No. 142 on a New York City murder trial, but was eliminated only a couple of days into the jury selection process. The judge on the trial felt that President Clinton (and the Secret Service agents who follow him at all times) would sensationalize the atmosphere in the courtroom.

The Illegal Way: Lie
Whether you say you're "prejudiced against all the races," as per Homer Simpson, or simply claim that your Grandma died, lying is a time-honored way to both get out of jury duty AND get thrown in jail for contempt of court. Just ask Benjamin Ratliffe, an anti-death penalty activist from Columbus, Ohio. In June 2006, Ratliffe was called in for jury selection on a capital murder trial. Unwilling to risk being on a jury that might want to hand down a death sentence, Ratliffe decided to take matters into his own hands. When he was given a form to fill out, he intentionally flubbed a couple key questions. At one point in the questionnaire, Ratliffe claimed he was "bad jonesin' for heroin." When asked if he'd ever fired a weapon, he responded, "Yes. I killed someone with it, of course." The result was a sort of be-careful-what-you-wish-for moral lesson. Ratliffe did get out of jury duty, but he also spent 24 hours in jail for obstruction of justice before he finally agreed to apologize to the judge.

The Smart Way: Know a Bit of Legal Trivia

Next time you're in the jury selection process and really want out, just inform the court that you know all about jury nullification"¦and you aren't afraid to use it. A little-known facet of common law dating back to Elizabethan England, jury nullification happens when a jury hands down a "not guilty" verdict—but not because they think the defendant is innocent. Instead, they're making a statement about the validity of the law itself. The first jury nullification happened in 1670, when William Penn (of Pennsylvania fame) and William Mead (of no fame) were charged with unlawful assembly—a crime basically created to prevent unsanctioned religious groups from getting together to worship. Clearly, both men were guilty, but the jury refused to convict them on the grounds that the law was unjust. The practice continued in America. Throughout the mid-1800s, northern juries would frequently nullify prosecutions against people who violated the Fugitive Slave Laws. And, during Prohibition, juries around the country nullified numerous alcohol control violations. Prior to the 20th century, nullification was accepted as common practice, but around the late 1800s, judges started taking a harsher view of it. In 1895, the Supreme Court even handed down a ruling saying that judges don't have to inform juries of their right to nullify. Today, most judges take advantage of this. Many will even tell you that you legally can't nullify a law. There's some debate over whether that's true or not. (At any rate, jurors can't be punished for the verdict they return and not-guilty defendants can't be retried—so we figure, what the heck.) Either way, most judges don't want to deal with a juror who might pull the nullification card, so if you bring it up, you'll likely be eliminated from the jury pool.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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