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3 Tips for Surviving the Witness Protection Program

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Created by the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, the Witness Protection Program (WPP) does exactly what the movies say—it hides witnesses from vengeful thugs by giving them new identities (not to mention $60,000 a year in subsistence payments, one reasonable job opportunity, and—of course—psychological counseling). Since its inception, some 17,000 people have participated in the system, and no one who's followed the program guidelines has ever been killed. With that in mind, we've provided this helpful list of "don'ts" guaranteed to make your WPP moving adventures a little more pleasant.

1. Don't Commit Another Crime

Believe it or not, 17 percent of all program participants have committed a known crime while under protection—including the first one. Joseph "The Animal" Barboza became the first person to use the WPP following his testimony against the La Cosa Nostra crime syndicate. Giving him the name "Joe Bentley," the FBI moved him to California and enrolled him in cooking school. But in 1971, he ended up on trial for first-degree murder. The case, and the ensuing conviction, blew Barboza's cover. He was shot shortly after being paroled in 1975.

2. Don't Invite Your "Old Friends" to Visit

Life in a new city can be lonely sometimes, but it's probably best not to call up your old buds. Unfortunately, Brenda Paz, a 17-year-old who'd served as a witness against the notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) street gang, did just that. Hiding under a new identity at a St. Paul, Minn., Embassy Suites in 2003, Paz invited two carloads full of MS-13 members to come by and check out the hotel's hot tub. She then returned to her gang's old stomping grounds in northern Virginia. Bad idea. She was dead within days.

3. Shop around for better Programs

Should you find yourself living in the United Kingdom and in need of equivalent government assistance, keep the following in mind: Unlike America's federally organized system, Great Britain's version of the WPP is handled by regional police forces. And apparently, this doesn't always work out for the best. In 2000, Alan Decabral, a witness to a gang murder, was shot in a parking lot after living under Kent police protection for less than a year. Another witness, Thomas McCartney, charged police in Northern Ireland with failing to even give him new identity papers. The bottom line? When shopping around for witness protection programs, you probably want the kind made in the U.S. of A.

PS Those great glasses in the pic are available here.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]