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The Quick 10: 10 Reasons You Don't Want to Go to Angola Prison

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If you have been following the Hurricane Gustav news (and it's kind of impossible not to), then you might already know that Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, issued a statement saying that anyone caught looting will automatically be sent to Angola Prison "“ do not pass go, do not collect $200. This might not sound like a huge deal, but usually to be sent to Angola (aka "The Farm") you have to have a sentence of 50 years to life. The word is that the prison isn't as horrible as it used to be, but when Nagin issued the statement, he added, "God bless you if you go there." So I'm assuming this is not a threat to be taken lightly. Anyway, in case you don't know what makes Angola so horrifying (I didn't before I wrote this), I thought I'd do the Q10 on it today"¦ thanks to Jason English for the idea. And thanks to the Angola Museum for the picture.

1. It's a working prison, meaning that inmates don't just sit around and watch T.V. all day. This stems from the 1800s, when inmates worked on constructing a levee. Now, they do lots of agricultural work "“ the prison sits on 18,000 acres of farm land.

2. Conditions were so abusive and the brutality was so bad that in 1952, 31 prisoners slashed their own Achilles' tendons to protest. Anyone who has ever cringed during that scene in Kill Bill when The Bride slashes Buck's Achilles' tendon with a scalpel knows how horrible that would be "“ especially doing it to yourself.

3. Of the 5,000-plus inmates, 86 percent are violent offenders and 52 percent are serving life sentences. There are 84 male inmates on death row and one woman.

prejean4. It's the home of Gruesome Gertie, the house electric chair. It's not currently used, but it was the main form of capital punishment for 50 years. It was the chair that sent Elmo Patrick Sonnier, the subject of the movie Dead Man Walking, to his death in 1984. It was last used for execution in 1991. It made an appearance in the movie Monster's Ball. That's Sister Helen Prejean in Angola to the left, the nun who counseled Sonnier and made their story famous.

5. Horrifyingly, Gruesome Gertie didn't always work as she should have. In 1946, teenager Willie Francis was to be executed in the chair for killing his employer at a local drugstore. But the prison guard who set the chair up was drunk at the time and didn't do it right. Once the switch was thrown, Francis apparently screamed, "Take it off! Let me breathe! I'm not dying!" They did, and Francis appealed to the Supreme Court, citing cruel and unusual punishment (among other things). The appeal was rejected, however, and Willie Francis was executed (again) on May 9, 1947. I can't imagine the horror of going back to the electric chair after the first botched attempt.

6. It's where two of the Angola 3 were in solitary confinement since from 1972 until March 2008. Robert King Wilkerson, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace were convicted of stabbing a prison guard to death. "Witnesses" included other inmates who were promised cigarettes and pardon recommendations for testifying. One prisoner repeatedly confessed to the murder over the years, but it's alleged that prison officials chose to ignore him in favor of putting the Angola 3 in solitary because they were leaders of the prison's Black Panther movement. Wilkerson was paroled in 2001, but Woodfox and Wallace remained in solitary until recently. Wallace said that for years, he would attend biweekly "hearings" to determine whether his behavior was good enough to spring him from solitary, but when he got to the room, he was simply handed a piece of paper saying that he was denied. He never got a chance to speak.

music7. Musicians have been telling the tale of Angola's horrors for years. Lead Belly, Freddy Fender, Robert Pete Williams, Aaron and Charles Neville, James Booker and rapper Juvenile are just a handful of people who have mentioned Angola in their works. Lead Belly actually served time in Angola from 1930 to 1934 for attempted homicide, Freddy Fender served about three years for marijuana possession, and James Booker spent six months at The Farm for heroin possession.

8. It sounds very Austin Powers "“ sharks with frickin' laser beams "“ but Warden Burl Cain uses wolves and bears to help guard the grounds. Although the bears are more of a bonus than a planned thing: when it was discovered that a 400+ pound black bear was living on prison grounds, Cain viewed it as a plus. "I love that bear being right where it is," he said. "I tell you what, none of our inmates are going to try to get out after dark and wander around when they might run into a big old bear. It's like having another guard at no cost to the taxpayer." It's probably not the only bear, though "“ prison officials think they might have up to ten living at The Farm. As for the wolves, Paste magazine reported in 2003 that the prison had recently acquired wolves to act as guard dogs. "You're more afraid of a wolf than you are of dogs," Cain said, "so if I have a wolf that'll bite, then the wolf will never have to bite anybody, because nobody will want to be challenged by the wolf."

9. Prisoners make their own coffins. At least, they could be. A coffin-making factory on the grounds keeps inmates busy, but it serves a purpose as well: prisoners who die and are not claimed by anyone are buried in them. This is a step up from the cardboard boxes they used to use for burials. That practice had to be stopped when a corpse fell through the bottom of the box.

10. There's not much mercy for those who act out. When one inmate got unruly at his trial in 2002, officers dealt with the problem by taping his mouth shut. Well, his whole head, almost. Paste quotes the the Baton Rouge newspaper The Advocate: "State Penitentiary security officerswrapped the bottom half of his face and all of his neck with duct tape, then wrapped a circle of tape under his jaw and over the top of his forehead."

However, Angola also has some things other prisons don't: its own radio station ("The Incarceration Station") and magazine produced by inmates, the annual Angola Prison Rodeo and a four-year bible college.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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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]