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The Quick 10: 10 Instances of Cannibalism

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Today marks the anniversary of the rescue of the cannibalistic Donner Party (in case you're not familiar, they're #1 on the list below). But the Donner Party is definitely not the first - or last - to turn to dining on human flesh when in dire straits. Or, you know, for entertainment. I've tried to steer clear of modern serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, though no tale of cannibalism is particularly pleasant.

1. The Donner Party. In 1846, the Donner Family plus some friends and hired hands headed west from Illinois to California. They had almost completed the journey when they ran into some severe weather around Truckee, California, and decided to set up camp for the rest of the winter until they could make it the rest of the way. It was a cruel winter, though "“ provisions ran out and people were dying left and right. Help finally arrived on this day in 1847, but they couldn't take everyone at once. By the time the Second Relief came in a week later, the remaining survivors had started to eat some of the dead bodies.

cook2. James Cook. Perhaps it's his name that fuels this urban legend, but there's probably no truth to the fact that Captain James Cook met his maker by way of a stewpot. It's true that he was killed in a skirmish with some native Hawaiians, and it's likely that his body was boiled to remove the flesh (it used to be common practice when a corpse had to travel to its final resting place). But the idea that the Hawaiians ate the flesh is very much in question "“ research has shown that the Hawaiian group he and his men fought with didn't practice cannibalism.
3. Boyd Massacre. In 1809, the son of a Maori chief joined the Boyd, a convict ship sailing from Australia to the Northland Peninsula of New Zealand. He specifically asked for passage on the ship and said that he would work to earn his way, but once he got there, he refused to hold up his end of the bargain, saying that the son of a chief should never be subjected to such menial tasks. He was beaten for his disobedience, and when he finally disembarked at his destination of Whangaroa, he ran to his tribe and told them what happened. The tribe exacted revenge three days later: they killed nearly all of Boyd's crew and ate them. The only survivors were a two-year-old girl, a woman and her baby, and the ship's cabin boy.

4. Lon Nil. In 1970, the brother of the Cambodian Prime Minister was killed in a riot. Nil was a politician as well, and was visiting the town of Kampong Cham when his brother announced a plan to depose King Sihanouk. Sihanouk encouraged people to riot and revolt and join the Khmer Rouge, and the people of Kampong Cham took him at his word and killed Lon Nil, then ripped out his liver and had a restaurant cook it up so they could eat it.

grill5. Alferd Packer. In 1873, Alferd Packer and 20 other men left Utah and were headed to Colorado to try their hand at gold mining. But, as expected, the Colorado weather soon turned nasty, and by February 9, only six of the men were still attempting to make the trip. And by April, Packer was the only one left. Packer said he was out hunting and scouting one day and came back to find that Shannon Bell, one of the other members of the party, had gone mad and killed the others; when Packer returned to the campsite Bell was busy roasting up a lovely dinner made up of the other four party members. He tried to attack Packer, and Packer shot him. The judge didn't believe this story, though, and sentenced Alferd to prison. Packer's downfall probably came when he admitted that, on the brink of death, he did nibble on his already-dead companions a little bit. After 16 years in jail, he was paroled mostly thanks to public outcry that he was imprisoned on circumstantial evidence. He died in 1907, still swearing that he only killed Bell and only in self-defense. Recent evidence may prove that Packer was telling the truth "“ the position of various bullet holes and the discovery of Packer's gun so far seem to corroborate his story.

lifeboat6. Tom Dudley and Edwin Stephens. In May 1884, the Mignonette set sail from England, headed to Australia. She carried just four passengers "“ Captain Tom Dudley, cabin boy Richard Parker, Edwin Stephens and Edmund Brooks. It was smooth sailing until July 5, when the yacht was devastated by a huge wave. The lifeboat was launched, but it was a really crappy lifeboat, and the only things the crew managed to grab were the navigational instructions and two tins of turnips. Even so, things were OK until July 17 "“ they killed a large turtle and ate it, which gave them about three pounds of meat apiece. But once that was gone, the men started talking about one of them sacrificing himself to provide meat for the other three. Parker was practically comatose by this point, so he was the natural candidate. They killed him sometime around July 25th or 26th and were rescued on July 29. When they returned home, Stephens and Dudley were found guilty of murder and were given the statutory death penalty with a recommendation for mercy, and ended up serving just six months in jail. They are said to have been disappointed at such a long sentence.

fish7. Albert Fish. This dude is the stuff horror movies are made of. A few of his nicknames included the Brooklyn Vampire, the Boogeyman and the Werewolf of Wysteria. Fish confessed to murdering and eating at least three children and may have killed up to six. He sent a pretty detailed letter to the mother of Grace Budd, a 10-year-old victim, and wrote another TMI confession for a different victim with such detail that it could have well been a recipe book. He was finally put to death via the electric chair at Sing Sing in 1936, he reportedly told his executioners that being electrocuted would be the "supreme thrill of my life." It took two jolts to kill him, which led to rumors that all the needles he had inserted into his pelvis (one of his sexual fetishes) had short-circuited the chair.

dewitt8. Johan de Witt. De Witt was a successful politician who negotiated peace between the Dutch and England during after the First Anglo-Dutch War. But, political tastes changed, as they tend to. In 1672, during the Franco-Dutch War, the French invaded and people turned to William III of Orange for protection. The problem? De Witt and the House of Orange were bitter enemies. His brother, Cornelius, was imprisoned, and Johan was sent a forged letter from Cornelius that begged him to visit. When he complied, he was assassinated (as was his brother). The brothers' bodies were hung upside down from a scaffold and the bodies were mutilated; fingers, toes and organs were sliced off and carried away for dinner. Their hearts were proudly displayed as trophies for a number of years.
9. The Essex whaleship. The Essex is another tale of people on a ship being stranded and eating one another for survival, sadly. In 1819, a sperm whale, perhaps intuitively understanding the ship's mission, rammed The Essex two times. This was enough to sink the old girl, leaving 21 sailors stranded on tiny Henderson Island (it only has an area of 14.4 square miles). They quickly depleted the island of its natural food resources such as birds and vegetation and they got back in their lifeboats to seek help or food elsewhere. Nothing was to be found, though, and the crew started to turn their hungry eyes on each other. For a while they were able to sustain themselves on people who had died, but eventually, the decision was made that one of them must die in order to feed the others. The decision was made randomly, as was the decision as to who would do the killing. And that's how Charles Ramsdell ended up killing and eating his good friend, the appropriately-named Owen Coffin. Eventually, another whaling ship happened upon the devastated crew and rescued them, but by this time, a total of seven sailors had been devoured. And if the story of the whale ramming the ship sounds familiar, it's because a young Herman Melville heard of this tale and was inspired to write Moby Dick.

10. The Uruguayan Rugby team that the movie Alive was based on. No doubt you're familiar with this one, but I had to include it. On Friday, October 13 1972 (where was this last week when I was compiling my list of Friday the 13th events?), the plane carrying Stella Maris College's rugby team crashed in the Andes. Seventeen of the 45 people on the plane either died upon impact or died of injuries sustained in the crash the following day. Eight more died in an avalanche on October 29. After quickly depleting the small amounts of food that had been on the plane, everyone collectively decided that they would need to eat the dead bodies of their friends in order to survive. And it was a good thing they did: the nourishment gave some of the men the energy needed to hike for days to try to find some help. Finally, in mid-December, they spotted cows roaming and then a few men on horses. The remaining 16 survivors back at the camp were finally rescued on December 22.

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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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Stephen Missal
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]