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By the Light of the Moon: Abraham Lincoln's Adventure in Forensic Meteorology (Part 1)

This week we're running a special series by Matt Soniak about Abraham Lincoln's foray into forensic meteorology. Check back each day for a new installment!

August 29, 1857. Mason County, Illinois.

The night James Metzger got hit in the head, Walker’s Grove was hot and noisy. Between the crickets and the Methodists who were having a camp meeting nearby, the blow that killed Metzger was a barely audible thump. In the humid, heavy air of late August, the sound just wilted, sank and drowned. The people at the camp meeting didn’t even know anything had happened until several days later, when Rev. George Randle, the pastor of the local congregation, received word from town that the man had died. “The news came to camp meeting that a man was killed at the whiskey camp,” Randle reflected, succinctly, years later. “This report proved true.”

Camp meetings, a type of outdoor religious revival, were integral to spiritual life in areas of the American frontier where religion was firmly established but not every community had a church building. The meetings, which often lasted for several days, attracted not just the faithful, but young men who saw the crowds and the outdoor settings as ideal conditions for drinking, gambling, fighting and socializing. This rowdy element could be so disruptive that Illinois made it a criminal offense to "disturb a worshiping congregation.” Methodist ministers often tried to keep the “whiskeyites” a mile or more away from the meetings, so the men would often set up their own tents and wagons to make a “whiskey camp.”

On Saturday, August 29th, James Preston Metzker, a farmer in his mid-twenties who lived in Menard County, was hanging out at the whiskey wagons. Also there were James H. Norris, a farmer in his late twenties with a wife and four children and William “Duff” Armstrong, a twenty-four-year-old farmer also from Menard County. The three men were acquaintances, but after heavy drinking over the course of the night, both Norris and Armstrong argued with Metzker, possibly together but probably separately. At least one of those arguments turned physical, and a little before midnight, Metzker was struck in the head with a "slung-shot"—a weight tied to a leather thong, sort of an early blackjack. He managed to make his way home from the camp the next morning, falling from his horse several times. When a doctor examined him, he found that Metzger's skull was fractured in two places. Metzger died of his injuries two days later.

The Mason County sheriff arrested both Norris and Armstrong for Metzker’s murder. Because of the public interest in the case and the insecure conditions of the Mason County jail, the two men were taken to Lewiston in Fulton County to await trial (and Armstrong's trial would later be held in Beardstown in Cass County). In October, the Mason County Circuit Court indicted Norris and Armstrong jointly for the murder. The indictment read, in part:

"State of Illinois, Mason County

Of the October Term of the Mason County Circuit Court in the year of Our Lord one thousand eight hundred and fifty-seven.

The Grand Jurors chosen selected and sworn in and for the County of Mason aforesaid in the name and by the authority of the People of the State of Illinois upon their oaths present that James H. Norris and William Armstrong of the County of Mason and State of Illinois not having the fear of God before their eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, on the twenty-ninth day of August…with force and arms at and within the County of Mason…in and upon one James Preston Metzker…unlawfully, feloniously, willfully, and of their malice aforethought did make an assault. …James H. Norris with a certain piece of wood about three feet long which he in his right hand then and there held…James Preston Metzker in and upon the back part of the head…and there unlawfully, feloniously, willfully, and of his malice aforethought, did strike, giving to…Metzker…one mortal bruise and…William Armstrong with a certain hard metallic substance called a slung-shot which he…in his right hand then and there held…James Preston Metzker, in and upon the right eye and there unlawfully, feloniously, willfully and of his malice aforethought did strike, giving to the said James Preston Metzker…one other mortal bruise, of which said mortal bruises…James Preston Metzker from the 29th day of August until the 1st day of September…did languish, and languishing did live and on first day of September James Preston Metzker of the said mortal bruises died.”

Norris had killed a man years earlier, but was cleared of the charges after claiming self-defense. Things would not go his way this time around. The jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to eight years in a state penitentiary.

While Armstrong was awaiting trial, his father Jack died. On his deathbed, the elder Armstrong urged his wife Hannah to do everything she could to save Duff, even if she had to sell their farm. She initially employed Walker and Lacey, the law partners who had defended Norris, to take Duff's case, but friends advised her to get another lawyer. She decided to call upon an old friend of the family, an attorney who had also dabbled in politics, named Abraham Lincoln.
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Coming tomorrow: The story continues, plus Abraham Lincoln's brief early career as a wrestler.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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