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The Taman Shud Mystery

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Dan Lewis runs the popular daily newsletter Now I Know ("Learn Something New Every Day, By Email"). We've invited him to share some of his stories on mental_floss this week. To subscribe to his daily email, click here.

On December 1, 1948, a man's body was found on a beach in Australia. He carried no identification. He was dressed in a suit with all the labels deliberately cut off, suggesting that someone was trying to obfuscate his identity. Early attempts to determine who he was were unsuccessful, as dental records resulted in no matches, and his personal items -- cigarettes, a pack of Juicy Fruit, and some change -- were not unique to him. Not knowing who the man was, how he got to the beach, or how he died, officials turned to an autopsy. The results were consistent with poisoning, as examiners found congestion throughout the brain and body, blood in the man's stomach and liver, an extremely enlarged spleen, etc.

Clear cut poisoning -- except that no poisons were found in the man's system.

The police managed to come up with a few possible identities, each eventually disproven.

(At one point, police determined that the body was that of one E.C. Johnson -- only to have the real Mr. Johnson walk into the police station a few days later.) By mid-January of 1949, the case had gone cold. But then, officials hit paydirt. A suitcase, checked into a nearby train station the night the mystery man died, turned up. Again, all labels were removed -- except for a few which ascribed ownership to a "T. Kean[e]," spelled in various ways (e.g. "Kean" or "T. Keane"). A sailor by the name of Thomas Keane had recently gone missing, but those who knew him stated that the body could not be his. Again the trail had gone cold.

And then -- then! -- things got weird.

In the summer of 1949, inspectors found a concealed pocket inside the man's trousers. In the pocket was a piece of paper, which read "Tamam Shud," which means "ending" in Persian. (The actual phrase is "Taman Shud," but in transliteration, the "n" became a second "m.") Officials from the public library identified the paper as coming from a version of a collection of poetry called The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. After circulating copies of the piece of paper (and the name of the book it came from) in the press, the police gained what they hoped would be a key clue: the book from which the paper came. The relevant copy of The Rubaiyat was in the back seat of an unlocked car the night before the mystery man's death. On the back was a cipher, pictured right. In the front was a phone number.

The phone number belonged to a former nurse who, being recently married and now the mother of a toddler, requested that she be spared the embarrassment of being associated with a murder, and that her name not be disclosed. Incredibly, the police agreed. She claimed that, four years earlier, she gave the book to a man named Albert Boxall. Police, convinced that the mystery man was Boxall, were thrown for another loop in the following weeks. Not only did the police find the real Mr. Boxall, alive and well, but he provided them with the copy of The Rubaiyat given to him by the unnamed nurse -- with the phrase "Tamam Shud" still intact.

To date, the identity of the mystery man remains unknown, as does the meaning, if any, of the cipher. Even the cause of death is not certain. Researchers are still enamored with the case and there are current attempts to crack it. In fact, new research has determined one thing to be almost certainly true: the mystery man was the father of the unnamed nurse's (illegitimate) son.

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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.