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6 Horrifying Modern Cannibals

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Cannibalism, as repulsive as it is, can be understood in cases where consuming the deceased is an alternative to certain starvation. Those who eat human flesh by choice, however, tend to be the kind of people who will torture and murder to satisfy their curiosity. Be warned that some of the following links are disturbing.

1. Dorangel Vargas

Dorangel Vargas is known as "the Hannibal Lecter of the Andes". He was confined to a mental hospital in 1995 after the remains of a missing man were found in his home, but Vargas was released two years later. In 1999, police in San Cristobal, Venezuela again found human remains in Vargas' possession. This time, at least ten skulls and fresh entrails were found. Vargas admitted eating the bodies, but denied murder charges, saying the bodies were given to him. This statement led to conjecture that Vargas was being used to cover up an organ trafficking operation. Vargas was homeless and already known to be mentally unstable. During an interview, Vargas claimed that eating people was like eating pears. Vargas is confined to a mental institution.

2. Kevin Ray Underwood

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Kevin Ray Underwood was arrested in April 2006 for the murder of 10-year-old Jamie Bolin in Purcell, Oklahoma. Although there is no evidence that Underwood actually cannibalized the body, police found meat tenderizer and barbecue skewers among the tools used to commit the murder. Underwood confessed to the murder and his plans to eat Bolin's flesh. His videotaped confession is full of gruesome details.

3. Robert Maudsley

158maudsleyRobert Maudsley committed his first murder in 1974. He sold sexual services to support his drug addiction, and killed one of his clients. Maudsley was sent to a hospital for the criminally insane. In 1977, he and another inmate took a third inmate hostage for nine hours before authorities could break into the cell. The victim, a pedophile, had been tortured and killed. His skull was cracked open and a part of his brain was missing. A spoon in the skull led guards to believe Maudsley had eaten part of his victim. He was convicted of manslaughter and sent to Wakefield prison, where he soon killed two more men before being sent to solitary confinement. In 1983, a special cell was constructed for Maudsley at Wakefield prison, where he is held in solitary confinement behind glass with no human contact. Food is passed to him through a slot. This cell is believed to be the model for Hannibal Lecter's enclosure in The Silence of the Lambs.

4. Issei Sagawa

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Japanese student Issei Sagawa studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and became infatuated with Dutch student Renée Hartevelt in 1981. Instead of courting her, he shot her in the back of the neck. Then Sagawa lived out a fantasy he'd had since childhood as he cut her flesh and ate it raw. He then had sexual intercourse with Hartevelt's body, cut it into pieces, put some of the flesh in his refrigerator for later, and stuffed the rest into suitcases to dispose of at nearby Bois de Boulogne park, where he was noticed. Police retrieved Hartevelt's body parts and arrested Sagawa a few days later. Sagawa confessed to the murder. He was held for two years, then committed to a hospital for the criminally insane. While there, he wrote his autobiography In the Fog, which became a best seller in Japan. Sagawa was deported to Japan, where he underwent mental examinations and was found sane. Japanese officials could not prosecute him because France did not send the necessary paperwork. By 1986, he was a free man, and willing to talk about what he did to Renée Hartevelt. Sagawa is the "celebrity cannibal" of Japan. He has written more books, worked a short time as a restaurant critic, granted interviews, painted nudes, and even acted in porn films. In short, he is making a living off his crime.

5. Armin Meiwes

200_Armin_Meiwes14Armin Meiwes posted a personal ad online to solicit a victim for murder and cannibalism in 2001. Bernd Juergen Brandes, who did not know Meiwes, volunteered to be his victim through a German chatroom. The two met and carried out the plan, which is documented in gruesome detail. Meiwes consumed the remains of Brandes over several months. He was reported to police after posting another personal ad. Meiwes was convicted of manslaughter amid questions of whether a murder victim can give consent. He was retried in 2006 and convicted of murder, and sentenced to life in prison.

6. Jeffrey Dahmer

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In the summer of 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer was on probation after serving time for fondling a young boy, but his overworked probation officer never visited his Milwaukee apartment. Police were called when a 14-year-old boy tried to escape Dahmer's clutches, but Dahmer convinced officers that the boy was an adult and the situation was a lover's quarrel. They left Konerak Sinthasomphone, who did not speak English, in Dahmer's hands. He was never seen alive again. When another victim, Tracey Edwards ran screaming from Dahmer's apartment, police investigated and found a house of horrors. In Dahmer's apartment were body parts belonging to 11 people. Some were found in the refrigerator and freezer, some packed into a barrel of acid, and some were dried and cleaned to be souvenirs. In his confession, Dahmer alluded to cannibalism and sexual acts with the deceased bodies, activities he expanded on in a 1994 interview. Dahmer pleaded insanity but was convicted and sentenced to life terms for each of 15 murders. He later pleaded guilty to another murder in Ohio. In 1994, another prison inmate bludgeoned Dahmer to death with an iron bar.

Researching my extensive list of modern cannibals is psychologically exhausting. This look at cannibalism will continue next week.

Update: see part two of this post, 6 More Cannibal Killers.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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
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science
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]

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