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8 Horror Myths Debunked (or Confirmed!)

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At my house, Halloween is like Christmas. So, you'll notice a larger-than-usual number of my posts this month will be focused on the creepy and macabre. Today, we turn to Snopes to help us debunk (or validate!) a bunch of horror myths.

1. Crazy people put razorblades in apples and needles in Halloween candy. Sadly, that's true. There have been specific, documented cases about kids being pricked by needles hidden inside of Halloween candy. More than 80 cases have been recorded since 1959, but only 10 resulted in even a minor injury. The worst case was when one woman required a couple of stitches. In most cases, Snopes says, it's usually because siblings or friends were trying to freak each other out. In 2000, though, a man in Minneapolis did put needles in Snickers bars and handed them out to kids he didn't even know. One boy did get stuck, but not enough to require medical attention. The man responsible was charged with intent to cause death, harm or illness.

2. Crazy people poison Halloween candy. This one is NOT true. At least, not in the way you think. Most people would assume that someone like the above guy in Minneapolis would poison candy and hand it out to any little kid that shows up at his doorstep. Nope, no documented proof of that. But in 1974, Texan Ronald O'Bryan killed his own son and tried to make it look like he was given poisoned Halloween candy. He poisoned four Pixie Stix and gave one to his son and one to three other children "“ but not as the act of a random madman. He was just trying to make it appear random so he could blame this urban legend for his son's untimely death. None of the other children ate their Pixie Stix, but Timothy O'Bryan did and was pronounced dead at 10 p.m. on October 31, 1974.

3. Bad guys hide under women's cars in parking lots and slash their Achilles' Tendons. We've all gotten that e-mail, right? This scary story has been lurking around since the 1950s and has seen a resurgence in recent years with e-mail chain letters. Snopes says that yes, people have definitely been attacked in shopping mall parking lots. But none of attackers were ever lying underneath the car, and there are no documented cases of them slashing the victims' ankles.

4. We all know that The Amityville Horror was based on a true story"¦ except it wasn't.

amityvilleYes, Ronald DeFeo, Jr., did kill his entire family in that house, but no demons were involved. The family that bought the house after the DeFeos didn't experience anything supernatural. William Weber, Ronald Jr.'s lawyer, admitted that he and the Lutzes completely fabricated the entire "haunted" story over a lot of wine. The author of the book, Jay Anson, built upon their tall tale and wrote the book.


5. A "bug bite" on a woman's cheek ends up erupting with baby spiders "“ turns out a spider laid eggs under her skin. Nope. Not possible. There's a short story about this legend (involving a kiss from the devil) that dates all the way back to 1849, so it's an oldie. Apparently in 1998, a doctor in Mexico did tell a man that a bulge on his thigh could possibly be where a spider laid eggs, but no baby spiders ever erupted from it.

ohio6. That song "Love Rollercoaster" originally done by the Ohio Players and later covered by the Red Hot Chili Peppers incorporates the scream of a woman being murdered. Not true. Some rumors say that they killed a woman in the studio to get the scream; one said that microphones picked inadvertently picked up a murder next door; others said the band just used a 911 recording. Nope. Visit Snopes for a sound clip and you can listen for yourself to see if you think it sounds like someone being killed. The band kept mum on the rumors for a while to sell more records, but eventually admitted it was a just one of the singers reaching a high pitch. Not a murder.

7. People posing as the hanging victim at a haunted house have actually died"¦ and the whole night passed before they were discovered. Yep, that's true. It's happened on multiple occasions, actually, and suicides have been mistaken for Halloween pranks as well. One such occasion happened on October 26, 2005. A 42-year-old woman committed suicide by hanging herself from a tree on a busy road, but no one reported it for hours because they assumed it was just a Halloween decoration.

kidney8. People are drugged and then relieved of their kidneys, which are then sold on the black market for $10,000 each. That's a negatory. And you're thinking, "But wait, they're also left in a bathtub full of ice." Well, that's only been added to the story since the mid "˜90s. The victim used to just be left along the side of a building or something. A Turkish man claimed that this exact thing happened to him in 1989, but it turned out that he willingly participated in the "surgery."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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