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Hail to the King: An Elvis FAQ

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Elvis Aaron Presley, the King of Rock n' Roll, would have been 74 years old today were it not for a bad night on the toilet in 1977. Even after all these years, there's still a lot of mystery surrounding the King, so for his birthday let's take a look at some of the myths that persist.

Was Elvis a DEA Agent?

Elvis was more straight-laced than the controversy surrounding his gyrating hips would lead you to believe. He hated the hippie drug culture and longed to become a "Federal Agent at Large" for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), a predecessor to the Drug Enforcement Agency. At a 1970 meeting at the White House with President Richard Nixon, Elvis offered to become an undercover agent and "infiltrate hippie groups" for the government. Nixon was unsure if an arrangement could be worked out, but made Elvis an honorary agent and gave him a badge. While Elvis never conducted any official BNDD business, he was, in some small way, a narc. A drug-addled narc, but a narc nonetheless.

Are Elvis and (insert name here) related?

Southerners like Elvis are often the butt of jokes about family trees that don't fork, but Elvis' family branches out in some surprising directions. Genealogical research has placed Elvis as a descendant of Abraham Lincoln's great-great grandfather, Isaiah Harrison and a sixth cousin once removed from Jimmy Carter (both their family lines go back to Valentine Preslar, a German who came to New York in 1709).

Was Elvis one of a kind?

There can only be one Elvis, but he did have a (Elvis believed identical) twin brother, Jessie Garon Presley, who was stillborn. Jessie, older than Elvis by a few minutes, was buried in a pauper's grave without a headstone in Priceville Cemetery near Tupelo, Mississippi.

Elvis' mother told him when he was young that when one twin died, the one that lived got the strength of both. Elvis got something else from his twin, too. When he was born, his parents chose "Aron" as his middle name, a non-traditional spelling similar to Jessie's middle name (birth records listed it "Aaron," and an older Elvis decided to use the traditional spelling.)

Did Elvis "shoot" Robert Goulet?

elvis-gun.jpgThe story goes that Elvis was watching TV one night when Goulet appeared on the screen. Elvis pulled a .357 out of his boot, shot the TV and supposedly said, "Get that @$*% outta' my house!"

Whether that's just some crazy story depends on who you ask. James Warner, the former Elvis expert at allexperts.com, has said that the incident stemmed from a time when Elvis was dating a woman who worked with Goulet. When Elvis was stationed in Germany while serving in the military, Goulet supposedly sent him a letter saying he'd "take good care of Anita" while Elvis was gone and the King held a grudge.

Goulet himself said that Elvis' associates told him that TV shooting was a common occurrence and Elvis didn't mean anything by it. In fact, he said in an interview that he and Elvis got along well (Goulet called him "charming and delightful") and described an encounter the two once had backstage. The singers were talking and at one point, Goulet commented on one of Elvis' rings. Elvis took it off his finger and put it on Goulet's, who kept it until it was stolen (he suspected his housekeeper).

Is Elvis still alive?

I haven't seen him, but if you have, now is the time to share.

If you've got a burning question that you'd like to see answered here, shoot me an email at flossymatt (at) gmail.com. Twitter users can also make nice with me and ask me questions there. Be sure to include your name and location (and a link, if you want) so I can give you a little shout out.

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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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