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5 Clever Convicts Who Flew the Coop

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While we would never condone breaking out of the joint, we can't help but be impressed with these folks, who did so using brains (and dental floss) over brawn.

1. FedEx-Con

While in jail, accused murderer Jean-Pierre Treiber worked in the prison's stationery manufacturing department. In September 2009, Treiber constructed a cardboard box like he did many times during his shift. But instead of filling it with paper and pens, he crawled inside himself. Sitting among the other boxes to be delivered to a nearby store, his box was loaded onto the truck without hesitation. Once on the road, Treiber cut through the tarp covering the truck bed and hopped out, disappearing into familiar the countryside where he had worked as a forestry warden before his imprisonment. Thanks to fellow inmates covering for him, prison guards didn't notice Treiber was missing for nearly seven hours, giving him a head start on the massive manhunt that followed. While out of prison, he repeatedly contacted a French political magazine by mail to proclaim his innocence, saying he broke out because he was frustrated with French law. No amount of publicity, though, could keep the police from pursuing him, and he was eventually captured three months later near Paris.

2. Once, Twice, Three Times a Chopper...

According to one of the coolest Wikipedia pages ever—List of Helicopter Prison Escapes—the first guy to use a chopper to break out of prison was Joel David Kaplan in 1971. Kaplan might have been the innovator, but Pascal Payet took the idea to a whole new level.

payet_chopperWhile awaiting trial for a 1997 robbery and murder, Payet and some outside accomplices first used a whirlybird in October 2001 to enable his escape from a high-security compound in the south of France. Now free, he didn't just jet off to some tropical island and live out his days, though. Instead, he helped coordinate the helicopter escape of three other criminals from the exact same prison in 2003. When he was finally captured in 2005, he received a 30-year sentence for his initial crimes, then had an additional 13 years tacked on for the two helicopter stunts. But, hey, if it worked twice, why not a third time? In July 2007, Payet escaped from a prison in Grasse, France, using a helicopter again. He was recaptured a few months later in Spain, and is still behind bars...for now.

3. Do They Get Netflix in Prison?

shawshank1Using only a thick gauge wire, it took weeks for Jose Espinosa, convicted of manslaughter, to scrape the mortar away from the cinder blocks on the outside wall of his cell. He then broke up the bricks using a 10-pound shut off wheel from a water pipe and hid the chunks in his footlocker. All his hard work resulted in a 16" x 18" hole just big enough to squeeze through. In the cell next to his, Otis Blunt, who was being held on weapon and robbery charges, was using the same tools to burrow his way into Espinosa's cell. The two of them planned to make a break for it together.

How do you conceal these excavation projects from the watchful eyes of New Jersey County prison guards? You take a cue from Hollywood—The Shawshank Redemption, to be exact—and cover your escape plan with photos of pin-up girls in bikinis. But unlike Andy and Red, these escapees did not live happily ever after. Both were captured just a few weeks later and sent back to prison. Believe it or not, but they pleaded Not Guilty to escape charges.

4. 4 out of 5 Escapees Recommend It

Dental floss is pretty tough stuff. So tough, it's been used in some surprising ways for clever jailbreakers to gain their freedom.

One such fellow was Scott Brimble, who, in 2002, was serving a 64-day sentence in a Washington jail for not properly registering as a sex offender. He complained of being claustrophobic, so was given more time in the exercise yard. However, he used this time wisely by slowly sawing away at a fence using dental floss and toothpaste, which acted as an abrasive. Soon he had cut through enough of the fence he was able to pry it open and escape.

Another guy, Robert Shepard, convicted of manslaughter and armed robbery, traded cigarettes to other inmates for as much dental floss as he could get his hands on. He wove the floss into an 18-foot long rope about the thickness of a telephone cord and used it to climb over a wall. As a result, the state of Maine quickly prohibited the sale of all dental floss inside prisons, inspiring one jailbird to sue for "stress and anxiety over the inability to fight tooth decay."

5. "I Wanna Be A Toys 'R' Us Crook!"

Jeffrey Manchester was sent to jail for drilling through the roof of fast-food restaurants and then, after closing time, dropping in to rob the safe. Then he broke out of prison in June 2004 by hiding in the undercarriage of a delivery truck, concealing himself with a piece of cardboard held in place by magnets that attached to the truck's frame. But it was after he escaped that his true ingenuity shined through.

While on the lam, Manchester chose a most unusual hiding place—a Toys 'R' Us store in a strip mall. Every night for months, he'd tuck himself into a cubbyhole behind the bicycle display until the store closed. Then he'd steal baby food off the shelves for dinner and ride the bikes around the store for exercise. The next morning, he'd walk right out as though he were any other customer, but always returned each evening.

circuit_cityAs the holiday season approached, the Toys 'R' Us became more crowded, increasing his chances of getting caught. So, Manchester moved next door to the abandoned Circuit City. Using drywall and paint, he built himself a small apartment carefully concealed beneath a stairwell. He also constructed a secret, hidden door that allowed him easy access between the two buildings.

Soon after the move, Manchester decided to rob the Toys 'R' Us safe. He took a video baby monitor off the Toys 'R' Us shelf and set it up inside the store, so he could watch the nightly closing routine from the comfort of his apartment. He had planned to isolate the staff, clear out the safe, and make his escape through the secret door. That night, though, two employees slipped out the back and called police. A chase ensued and Manchester panicked, leaving through his escape hatch where police found his empty hide-out. Thanks to a fingerprint he'd left on a paint can, police were able to identify him and the manhunt began.

His picture was recognized by officials at a local church who called him "John"—a new congregation member known for giving toys to kids. "John" was dating a fellow church member who had no clue she was seeing an escaped convict. A sting operation used his new girlfriend as bait, and Manchester was re-arrested without a struggle when he showed up for her 40th birthday party.

Bonus: Sometimes It's Just This Easy

Finally, this prison escape doesn't involve any special tools, advanced planning, or even opposable thumbs (or a prison). Here's a panda in a zoo making its escape by getting a boost from a friend. As for the booster: Better luck next time, pal!

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]