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4 Regular People Who Negotiated High-Profile Surrenders

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Trained law enforcement officers and negotiators apprehend the vast majority of criminals. Sometimes, though, a civilian steps in and makes their job much easier. Let’s look at four citizen heroes who helped negotiate high-profile surrenders.

1. Sergeant-at-Arms Earns His Title

A body’s sergeant-at-arms has the duty of keeping order during its meetings. On May 7, 1984, one Canadian sergeant-at-arms went above and beyond his normal responsibilities. That morning, 25-year-old Denis Lortie, a supply corporal in the Canadian Forces, stormed into the National Assembly of Quebec dressed in fatigues and armed with two submachine guns. Lortie opened fire and quickly wounded 13 others in an attempt to destroy the ruling Parti Québécois.

Lortie had originally targeted Quebec Premier René Lévesque, but his timing was off. Lévesque had not yet arrived at the Assembly building, but the Assembly’s sergeant-at-arms, René Jalbert, was on the scene. Jalbert, a retired army major, approached Lortie and said, “I see you're an army man. I'm an army man myself.”

Jalbert gave Lortie coffee and a cigarette and calmly asked the gunman to come into his office to discuss what was bothering him. Amazingly, Lortie agreed. The retired major and the disgruntled corporal spent the next four hours talking, and Jalbert eventually convinced Lortie to talk to a police negotiator. When Lortie finally surrendered to military police hours later, the media hailed Jalbert as a hero. He modestly replied, “Every sergeant-at-arms across Canada would have done the same thing."

2. Japanese Soldier Finally Gives Up

The story of Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese soldier who refused to surrender following the end of World War II, sounds like something from a bad movie. Rather than laying down their guns, Onoda and a small group of comrades hid in the jungles of the Philippines for decades following the war. They refused to believe that Japan had really lost the war, and the men even launched small raids on Filipino villages and farms.

Onoda and his brethren assumed that any news of the Japanese defeat was merely a ruse to trick them into surrendering. By 1974, Onoda was the last remaining member of his cadre, and he still maintained that he would only surrender to his old commanding officer, a Major Taniguchi. Until then, he would keep carrying out his original orders of destroying infrastructure while evading capture and surrender.

Since Onoda was still actively waging a guerilla war in the Philippines, the Japanese government tracked down the officer, who by that point had been a bookseller for years. The government flew Taniguchi to the Philippines, where he officially gave Onoda the order to surrender. Onoda turned in his sword, his still-functioning Type 99 rifle and 500 rounds of live ammo, and several grenades.

3. Georgia Mom Stays Cool

Brian Nichols’ escape from an Atlanta courthouse was major national news in March 2005. Nichols, who was on trial for rape at the time, overpowered the deputy who was guarding him, locked her in a cell, and took her gun. Nichols then murdered the presiding judge in his trial, a court reporter, and a sheriff’s deputy while escaping.

Nichols immediately became the target of a massive manhunt, but he managed to elude capture for an evening and kill a federal agent while stealing his car. Very early the next morning he took Ashley Smith hostage in the parking lot of her apartment complex and forced her back into her apartment. Nichols bound Smith while he took a shower, but the young mother didn’t lose her composure.


Smith later recounted that she complied with Nichols’ demands while also trying to connect with him on some deeper level. Smith talked to Nichols about her five-year-old daughter, read to him from the Bible, and watched news reports about his escape. Gradually, Nichols seemed to feel at ease around his hostage, and he eventually put away his weapons.

The next morning, Smith asked Nichols if she could leave the apartment to visit her daughter. When he agreed, Smith left and called 911. Nichols ended up surrendering to police outside of Smith’s apartment.

Smith’s calm thinking and ability to develop a rapport with Nichols helped save her life while ending Nichols’ crime spree. It also netted her quite a bit of cash. Thanks to various agencies’ bounties for Nichols’ capture, Smith pulled in $70,000 in reward money for aiding in the arrest.

4. TV Priest Helps Nab Drug Lord

Up until his death in 1992, Rafael Garcia Herreros was arguably Colombia’s most famous Roman Catholic priest. As the host of the nightly television program “God’s Minute,” he had the nation’s ear.

He also had the ear of feared drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. In 1991, Escobar was Colombia’s most wanted man, but authorities weren’t having much luck convincing him to surrender. Enter Father Rafael Garcia. When Escobar kidnapped a group of journalists, the 82-year-old priest began ministering directly to the drug lord during his show. Eventually, Father Rafael Garcia met with Escobar and broke the story that Escobar was releasing two hostages.


Eventually, with the priest acting as an intermediary, the Colombian government and Escobar worked out a surrender agreement. In exchange for giving himself up, Escobar would receive a light sentence in a luxurious prison built to his specifications. More importantly for Escobar, he wouldn’t be extradited to the United States.


In late May 1991, Escobar formally offered to surrender to Father Rafael Garcia. On announcing the news, the priest said of Escobar, “He is tired of hiding and he believes that Colombia can judge him with wisdom and justice.”

Escobar, of course, only remained in his cushy prison for a little over a year before escaping.

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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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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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