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The Sherlock Holmes Handbook: How to Fake Your Own Death

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All week I'll be posting excerpts from my new book, The Sherlock Holmes Handbook, available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Enjoy the preview -- and please, don't try this at home!

How to Fake Your Own Death
"I owe you many apologies, dear Watson, but it was all-important that it should be thought I was dead, and it is quite certain that you would not have written so convincing an account of my unhappy end had you not yourself thought that it was true." — Sherlock Holmes, "The Empty House"

Any consulting detective as successful as Sherlock Holmes is sure to rack up an impressive list of powerful enemies, and sometimes—as Holmes decided was the case in "The Final Problem"—the best way to escape their vengeance is to fake one's own death. This is by no means an option for the faint of heart. Not only is it a cruel thing to inflict upon those who care for you, but it requires an exceeding amount of bother to execute the deed properly. Pray that you never have to embark upon the steps outlined here!

1. Design a persuasive death scene. The best kind—and your only option, really—is a death that leaves no recognizable body behind. Explosions or fires are good choices, provided you plant a skeleton in the wreckage that may plausibly be identified as your own. Water-related tragedies in which the corpse is unrecoverable are also ideal, as was Holmes's choice in "The Final Problem"—he made it appear as though he'd tumbled over the lofty Reichenbach Falls, the treacherous bottom of which authorities didn't even bother to search for his remains. Holmes's footprints led up to the precipice and disappeared, leading all concerned to conclude he had fallen to his death—when in fact he had merely climbed over a nearby ledge, where he hid until the scene was deserted and he could make a stealthy escape.

2. Skip town.
As long as you remain near your old familiar haunts or anyone who might recognize you, you're in danger. Get as far as possible from your home and the scene of your "death," as quickly as you can. When Holmes miraculously returns to London in "The Empty House," he tells Watson about the exotic places he'd lived in the intervening three years:Tibet, Persia, Mecca, and Egypt, among other distant locales. Those were extreme choices, to be sure, but extraordinarily safe ones—the chances of his meeting someone there whom he had known prior to his "death" were low indeed.

3. Assume a new identity.
Though your body lives on, your former identity must die. Grow facial hair, change your walk, and develop a new accent to help bury obvious traces of your former self. While traveling far and wide, Holmes went undercover as a Norwegian explorer named Sigerson, whose exploits and discoveries were fantastic enough to make international headlines.Yet he was never recognized as Holmes himself, so convincing was this disguise.

4. Arrange access to a supply of money.
Travel is expensive, and you'll no longer have access to bank accounts or lines of credit established under your real name. You can always bring cash with you or deposit money into an anonymous offshore account, but keep in mind that making any sudden, last-minute transfers or withdrawals into that account before your death is extremely suspect behavior. If you're able to plan your death significantly in advance, make gradual, monthly transfers over a period of several years to avoid suspicion. Less advisable was Holmes's technique: He revealed himself to his brother Mycroft, who became Holmes's sole confidant and source of funds. Had Mycroft been compromised in some way, Holmes's secret would've been revealed, and his life put into considerable danger. Which brings us to the next point:

5. Reveal yourself to no one.
The wrenching heartache endured by your loved ones is your enemies' most convinc- ing proof you're really dead. Should their grief-stricken ululations seem forced or overly theatrical, someone is sure to smell a rat. This profound separation from friends and relations will undoubtedly be the most trying aspect of your ordeal, as even cold and logical Holmes admits—"Several times during the past three years I have taken up my pen to write to you," he apologizes to Watson—but such cruel alienation is necessary. Holmes explains why: "I feared your affectionate regard for me should tempt you to some indiscretion which would betray my secret."

6. Wait until your enemies are at their weakest to return.
With time, the fires of your enemies' vengeance will cool, and their guard will fall. They may themselves die or be jailed (for such are dangers of the criminal life) and when they are at their most defenseless, as Holmes judged his to be shortly before his dramatic resurrection, it's time to return home.

7. Minimize the shock to your friends and family.
When Holmes finally reveals himself to Watson, he does it in such a shocking way—which Holmes himself later confesses was "unnecessarily dramatic"—that poor Watson, a veteran of war and a man of sound constitution, faints on the spot. Imagine the effect such an appearance would have on the elderly or the anxious, and do your all to introduce yourself to them gradually. Save surprising flourishes for your enemies!

Other excerpts from The Sherlock Holmes Handbook:

How to Disguise Yourself
Opium Dens and Narcotics in the Victorian Era

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]