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The Quick 10: 10 Other Jack the "_ippers"

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This weekend is kind of a strange anniversary "“ it was August 31, many years ago (OK, it was 1888 if we're being precise) that Jack the Ripper took his first known victim. Since then copycat killers have sprouted up all over the world, each with their own similar nicknames. I thought we would look at a few of them today"¦ and a few that aren't killers at all, but have used the "Jack the *ipper" name to amusing effects. I'll intersperse the two so you don't get too bogged down.


1. Jack the Stripper was the man behind the London "nude murders" of 1964 and 1965. Like Jack the Ripper, the Stripper targeted prostitutes. He killed somewhere between six and eight victims by one of three methods (asphyxiation, strangulation or drowning) and stripped all of their corpses down to nothing but stockings. He was never caught, but the killings just seemed to stop on their own anyway"¦ just like Jack the Ripper's.

2. Jack the Dipper, on the other hand, is "Killer ice cream at a price that won't leave you bleeding." You can find it in the town of Sylva, North Carolina. You can get a t-shirt, but they don't carry out the theme nearly as well as I would have hoped.

3. The Düsseldorf Ripper, AKA the Vampire of Düsseldorf. In 1929, Peter Kürten terrorized Germany. He was indiscriminate in his killings "“ women, men and children were all fair game to him. He didn't really have a particular method of killing, either "“ he used everything from hammers to scissors to knives. His downfall was in May of 1930, when one of his victims escaped and went to the police. He was eventually captured and sentenced to death via guillotine. Wikipedia says his head was dissected, mummified and sold to Ripley's Believe It or Not! in the Wisconsin Dells, but I can't find anything to verify that. Anyone know?

4. Jack the Nipper is an awesome video game"¦ on the off chance that you still appreciate the 1986 graphics from the Commodore systems of yore.

This Jack is decidedly less evil than his namesake "“ his crimes are more of the smashing-expensive-cases-and-terrorizing-cats variety. Jack is a little kid who roams around town getting into trouble, but if he gets caught, he gets a smack on the butt. Then he pees his diaper and gets a rash. You only have five diapers to go through, so you can only get caught so many times. Oh, Jack!!

5. The Yorkshire Ripper. Peter Sutcliffe (AKA Peter Coonan) murdered 13 women in a five-year span in the "˜70s. He killed quite a few prostitutes, but not all of his victims were "employed" in that field, which really alarmed the public. Despite a description from some of his surviving victims, a bootprint, tire tracks and a positive I.D. on the make of his car, and even nine interviews with the police, Sutcliffe was not definitively connected to the crimes until 1981, when police stopped him for having fake license plates on his car. He also happened to have a prostitute with him. He's still in prison to this day, and he's not very popular with the other inmates "“ since 1983 he has been attacked by multiple people with objects including a coffee jar, a pen, the flex from a pair of headphones and a bread knife.

6. Jack Tripper is, well, John Ritter. He was the lucky dude from Three's Company who lived with a house full of girls.

7. The Blackout Ripper was another Londoner "“ this one killed four women in as many days in 1942. He has also been connected to a couple of killings during air raids in 1941. His short but merciless spree was stopped when he was interrupted during an attack and left his gas mask case behind "“ the numbers on the case identified him as a Leading Aircraftman in the Royal Air Force.

8. Jack the Tripper is another havoc-wreaking little kid. In a book by Gene Baretta, something sinister is happening at Dizzie Day Elementary School"¦ prostitutes are turning up dead and horribly mutilated on the playground.

I kid, I kid. Someone is obviously tripping people at school, causing them to lose their homework. It's a serious problem, and the whole town is freaking out trying to nab the suspect. All they know is that he wears boots"¦ hmm"¦ could it be the disgruntled kid wearing a flannel and Doc Martens? (Disclaimer: I used to be a disgruntled kid wearing flannel and Doc Martens).

french9. The French Ripper or the South-East Ripper is like something out of a scary movie "“ he was known for the scars on his face, his accordion and the white rabbit-fur hat that he always accessorized with. They should have known he had a few screws loose when he shot a servant four times in 1893 because she didn't love him. She survived and he tried to kill himself, but only ended up paralyzing one side of his face (hence the scars).
He was released from the hospital in 1894 and spent the next few years killing. He liked to go after shepherds who were tending to their flocks all by themselves in fields. When he was caught, he pretty much confessed immediately and said he was insane because he was given a quack cure as a child after he was bitten by a rabid dog. Then he said that God told him to do it. It didn't really help his cause: he was guillotined in 1898.

zipper10. Jack the Zipper. Yes, thanks to Kenneth Cole, we've come all the way from horrible serial killers to stylish, leather messenger bags for men. For the low price of $99.98, you could own the soft bag with magnetic snap closure, zippered main pouch, exterior horizontal-zip pouch, two slip-in pockets under the flap and an adjustable shoulder strap.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]