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We Love Who They Aren't: 7 Famous Impostors

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Passing yourself off as someone else could land you in prison, but if you are convincing enough, your (fake) life could be the subject of a book or movie!

Princess Caraboo

Mary Baker was a 19th century scam artist who posed as a princess from an exotic but fictitious island. She appeared in Gloucestershire, England in 1817. No one could understand the strange language she spoke, nor her odd habits. After some weeks, a sailor coincidentally arrived who spoke her language. He translated her story to the effect that she was Princess Caraboo of the island of Javasu in the Indian Ocean, had been kidnapped by pirates, and had escaped by swimming ashore near Bristol. She was treated like proper royalty for the next ten weeks. Newspaper publicity led to her identification as Mary Baker by a woman with whom she had previously lodged. Mrs. Neale also recalled how Baker would sometimes speak in a language she had made up. To avoid embarrassment over the hoax, the family Baker was staying with in Bristol shipped her off to America, where she continued to live as Princess Caraboo. She later returned to England, and also traveled in France and Spain, posing again as Princess Caraboo. She later settled down in England under her real name and was never charged over the impersonation. Later investigation found that Baker had invented several false identities in the years before she became a princess. Her story was the basis of the 1994 movie Princess Caraboo, starring Phoebe Cates.

Friday the 13th Escapee

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50-year-old Steven Jay Russell spent many years portraying himself as various professionals for financial gain, but his prison escapes, which always happen on Friday the 13th, are more fascinating. Once, he impersonated a judge and had his own bail reduced. Another time, he dyed his prison uniform green with stolen magic markers and walked out while guards assumed he was a medical professional. In 1998, he feigned a heart attack when he was arrested, then impersonated an FBI officer who got him released from the hospital. Twice Russell convinced prison authorities that he had AIDS and escaped while arranging medical transfers, even faking his own death in the second incidence. He also impersonated officials to obtain the release of his prison lover Phillip Morris. Russell's last arrest was in 1998, after which he received a 144-year sentence. His affair with Phillip Morris is the subject of a movie to be released in 2009. I Love You, Phillip Morris will star Jim Carey as Russell and Ewan McGregor as Morris.

Reformed at an Early Age

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Frank Abagnale is a security consultant who has worked with the FBI for over 30 years. Before that, he was imprisoned in France, Sweden, and the US on bank fraud charges. He was only 16 years old when he began his 5-year crime spree. Abagnale defrauded his own father of $3,400 with a credit card scheme. He opened various checking accounts under false identities and withdrew nonexistent funds. With identification that stated he was ten years older than his actual age, he impersonated an airline pilot, a university teaching assistant, a pediatrician, and a lawyer (he passed the bar exam without attending law school). Abagnale served five years in prison, then was offered release in exchange for consultation services for the FBI. In 1980, he told his story in the book Catch Me If You Can, which was the basis of the 2002 movie of the same name, starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Tom Hanks.

The Multiple Diplomat

235Weyman.jpgStanley Clifford Weyman, also known as Stephen Weinberg, scammed people not just for personal gain (although he accepted money), but for the adventure. Between 1910 and 1954, he convinced people he was a US consul representative to Morocco, a Military attaché from Serbia, a consul general for Romania, a doctor (several times), the US Secretary of State, a faith healer, and a journalist for the United Nations. He also served several stretches in prison for fraud. In 1921, Weyman contacted the visiting Princess Fatima of Afghanistan and arranged for her to meet with president Warren Harding -for a fee of $10,000. Then he actually pulled off the meeting! He convinced actress Pola Negri that he was a doctor and a friend of her boyfriend Rudolph Valentino in time for his funeral in 1926. After a life of impersonation, Weymen died as true hero. At age 70, he was shot and killed while confronting thieves at the hotel where he worked.

The Grand Duchess

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Anna Anderson, also known as Anastasia Manahan, was once presented to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia of the Romanov dynasty. After Tsar Nicholas II and his family were killed in 1918, there were rumors that one of his daughters had survived the massacre. Anderson was discovered when she tried to kill herself in Berlin in 1920. She was taken to a mental institution, where her identity was questioned. Anderson claimed that she was the Tsar's youngest daughter Anastasia, had survived the shooting, and was rescued by a Russian soldier who she later married. Gleb and Tatiana Botkin, whose father was the Russian doctor who died with the Romanovs, promoted Anderson's imperial identity. This publicity impressed the public, even though none of the Tsar's many relatives who met Anderson thought she was Anastasia. The story was too good to pass up! The 1956 film Anastasia starring Ingrid Bergman was loosely based on Anderson's story. The 1997 animated film Anastasia was an even more fictionalized version of the earlier movie. Anderson died in 1984 in Virginia. DNA tests on a tissue sample proved she was not related to the Romanovs, but was most likely Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish woman born in 1896. In 2007, the remains of the last members of the slain Imperial Family were unearthed in Russia.

The Man Who Wouldn't Talk

200wouldnttalk.jpgGeorge DuPre served in World War II and returned home to Calgary. Over time, he told about his adventures as a spy in the British Intelligence to inspire local Boy Scouts. He lectured about how he smuggled pilots out of occupied France and was captured and tortured by the Nazis, but never gave them any information. This drew the attention of Readers Digest magazine, who found DuPre to be an upstanding citizen and commissioned Quentin Reynolds to write a book. The Man Who Wouldn't Talk was released in 1953 and became a bestseller. Readers Digest published a condensed version in the magazine in November of that year. That's when men who actually served with DuPre during the war noticed. The Calgary Herald investigated and found DuPre's story did not hold up under scrutiny. Infact, he had served his entire World War II career in England and had never been to France! When the newspaper published an expose, author Reynolds and Readers Digest editor DeWitt Wallace were stunned. The magazine printed a retraction, and the book publisher offered a refund to those who bought the book. It was then reclassified as fiction.

The Great Imposter

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Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr. began his life of deception in 1942, when he used an assumed identity to walk away from the US Army after one year of enlistment. He used forged credentials to find employment as a lawyer, a psychologist, a sheriff's deputy, a monk from two different orders, a teacher, and other positions. Demara was arrested and imprisoned several times. The impersonation he became famous for began in 1951 when he signed up for Canada's Royal Navy under the name of Dr. Joseph Cyr. At the time, the navy was desperate for surgeons and did not thoroughly check his background. Demara served aboard the HMCS Cayuga in the Korean War. He performed routine medical procedures and surgery by studying medical texts as needed. After removing a bullet from a war casualty, "Dr. Cyr" was profiled in a Canadian newspaper. The mother of the real Dr. Cyr read the account and called her son to ascertain that he was not, in fact, in Korea. This led to Demara's unmasking and dismissal from the Royal Navy. No charges were filed, as the navy assumed that Demara was still a doctor, if not the doctor he said he was. Demara's story was the subject of the book The Great Imposter by Robert Crichton, which was made into the 1961 movie The Great Imposter starring Tony Curtis.

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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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May 23, 2017
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