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True Crime: Murder on an Arctic Ice Floe

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Hypothetical situation: seven castaways have been living on an uncharted island in the Pacific for 15 years after a shipwreck. One member of the group is an eternal screw-up, the constant thorn in everyone's side, and one day the Skipper finally snaps. And the very next day a Coast Guard cutter shows up out of the blue and rescues the rest of the gang. What is the Skipper's fate? Can a person be tried for a murder committed in an unclaimed land where there technically is no law? Such was the dilemma faced by the U.S. Justice Department when a technician shot and killed a meteorologist on a remote Arctic ice floe in 1970.

The Real World: Ice Island T-3

The ice island known as T-3 was approximately seven-miles long and three-miles wide when a 20-man group of researchers arrived there in May 1970. The kidney-shaped ice floe floated rather aimlessly in a clockwise direction around the Canadian/Alaskan sector of the Polar Basin. Despite its extremely remote and frigid location (the average temperature hovered around -40°F), the men had trailer homes and research huts that they made as cozy as possible—some would later describe it as a "frat house" atmosphere—for the duration of their five-month assignment. Bennie Lightsy, an Air Force veteran and employee of the United States Weather Bureau, had been designated the station manager by the Arctic Research Laboratory. Also stationed there were Donald "Porky" Leavitt, another Arctic Research Lab employee, and Mario Escamilla, an employee of General Motors Defense Research Laboratory.

Had extensive background checks been commonplace in 1970, Porky Leavitt probably would not have been assigned to such an isolated post.

Unbeknownst to his co-workers, he had a serious drinking problem. Booze was not unheard of on the island, but it was available in limited quantities depending upon how much the supply planes brought in. The researchers paid for luxury items like liquor out of their own pockets, so they were naturally protective of their individual stashes. Porky apparently drained his own supply (small cargo planes can only carry so much) so quickly between deliveries that he threatened fellow researchers with a meat cleaver on three separate occasions in order to gain access to their alcohol stash.

An Arctic Bender

On the afternoon of July 16, 1970, Mario Escamilla was working at the GM hut when he received a phone call from his roommate, Charles Parodi. Parodi warned him that Porky was on a bender and had stolen Escamilla's jug of homemade raisin wine. Escamilla went first to the station's common "store" and grabbed a rifle and loaded it, mindful of Leavitt's previous violent outbursts. He burst into Leavitt's trailer where he found Porky and Bennie Lightsy drinking a combination of 190 proof ethyl alcohol cut with grape juice and Escamilla's raisin wine. Escamilla retrieved what remained of his wine, warned the two to stay out of his belongings and returned to his trailer.

Shortly after Escamilla returned to his trailer he heard footsteps approaching, and assuming it was Porky (and being well-acquainted with Porky's violent streak), picked up the loaded rifle. The person approaching was not Porky Leavitt but Bennie Lightsy (pictured), who allegedly began to argue about the "selfishness" of Escamilla regarding his raisin wine. No one but Mario Escamilla knows for sure what happened next, but according to him, while he was arguing with Lightsy, he also gesticulated with the rifle. He accidentally bumped the rifle during the discussion and it fired. Lightsy was hit and died shortly afterward, despite efforts by Escamilla to stem the bleeding (there were no medical personnel on the island).


After U.S. government personnel were advised of the crime, Escamilla airlifted by helicopter—a meticulous maneuver that involved in-air refueling over the Arctic Ocean—to Thule, Greenland, where he was then transferred to an airplane and flown to Dulles Airport. That disjointed return home was just one of many factors that made Escamilla's resulting trial so difficult from a legal standpoint.

Bennie Lightsy's death occurred on a floating island that didn't technically belong to any nation. At the time of the crime, T-3 drifted mainly in the Canadian sector of the Arctic Ocean, but the personnel involved were all Americans. And then there was that clause in International Law that stated an offender should be tried in the district into which he is first brought (in Escamilla's case, that meant Greenland). Many months of legal wrangling ensued. Canada eventually decided not to get involved and left the decision to the United States. It was ultimately decided that the floating ice island would be considered a "vessel" and that the case would be heard in Federal Court in Alexandria, Virginia, under the auspices of standard U.S. maritime law.

It Depends on What the Meaning of 'Vessel' Is

One of the most influential pieces of evidence entered on Escamilla's behalf was the rifle that fired the fatal shot. It was run through standard ballistic tests and was found to be defective—the gun discharged when bumped against a solid object, with no finger near the trigger. This finding gave credence to Escamilla's claim that the gun had just "gone off" while he was arguing with Lightsy. Along with the literal smoking gun evidence, the defense also presented a parade of character witnesses who swore that Escamilla was an easy-going, non-violent man. The jury found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter and the judge sentenced him to three years in prison with parole possible after three months. Judge Oren R. Lewis added a provision to the sentence: Escamilla could be released any time after 60 days and his sentence would be stayed depending upon the outcome of his appeal.

Escamilla's attorneys did eventually successfully appeal his sentence by questioning the legality of the definitions of many key terms used during the trial, such as "vessel" (can an ice floe really be considered in the same category as a ship?) and "ice floe" (what's the difference between an ice island and an occupiable ice floe?). Mario Escamilla never went back to jail after those initial 60 days and now lives in California. Ice island T-3 ultimately exited the Arctic Ocean via the Fram Strait and broke up off the coast of Greenland in 1984.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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