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Double Trouble: When Identical Twins Run Into the Law

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Last night, Law & Order: SVU did that “ripped from the headlines” thing where they borrow elements of real-world criminal cases or address current issues in law enforcement. The episode, “Double Strands,” revolved around a topic I've been reading a lot about lately: twins.


[Spoilers Ahead!]


The plot involves a serial rapist and his identical twin brother, who is falsely accused of the crimes. The SVU detectives eventually figured things out, but real-world police have had a lot of trouble with identical twins in several high-profile cases. DNA evidence — a tool that’s supposed to help convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent accurately and efficiently — has complicated cases where a twin or twins have been involved. This is because identical twins are the result of a single fertilized egg that formed one zygote, which then divided into two separate embryos. The siblings have nearly identical DNA, and we've yet to figure out how to discern one twin from the other using DNA analysis.

[End Spoilers]

The Headlines From Which The Story Was Ripped

One summer night in 2001, Darrin Fernandez attempted to break into an apartment in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. When he smashed a window to get inside, he not only alerted the person who lived in the apartment, but also cut himself deeply on the jagged glass. He fled, and police soon found him, still bleeding, as he tried to escape.

When the police analyzed DNA from the broken glass and from Fernandez, they found that he was a match for genetic material recovered in two unsolved sexual assaults cases, both of which were committed within a few blocks of the apartment Fernandez had tried to break into.

Fernandez was convicted of attempted breaking and entering at the apartment. He was also eventually convicted of one of the sexual assaults, for which there was plenty of evidence that implicated him, including the victim noticing a tattoo that his brother did not have (in the SVU episode, both twins have a similar tattoo in the same place). The police and prosecutors could not confidently put the second assault on him, though. The DNA match was the only substantive evidence that they had to go on, and it turns out that it also matched a second person: Fernandez’s identical twin brother, Damien.

There were no witnesses to the assault, no accomplices to roll, and no fingerprints at the scene. Darrin didn’t have an alibi to cover the time of the assault, but neither did Damien. The police couldn’t place either brother at the scene of the crime and the DNA that damned Darrin in another trial had only established reasonable doubt in this one. The case went to trial anyway and after four days of deliberation, there was a hung jury and a mistrial.  In a second trial several months later, the prosecution’s case rested heavily on the fact that Darrin worked as a painter near where the assault occurred, and he had the opportunity to case the neighborhood. Again, the jury was hung and a mistrial was declared.

In 2006 Fernandez went to trial a third time, and prosecutors were allowed to present for the first time evidence that he had committed four break-ins in the victim’s neighborhood within a year (and had been convicted of a similar sexual assault in one of those instances). The victim of that assault, who had not testified at the previous two trials, also took the stand this time around to highlight the similarities her attack shared with this case.

The jury returned a guilty verdict and, five years after his initial arrest, Darrin Fernandez was sentenced to 15 to 20 years on top of 10 to 15 year sentence he was already serving for the first assault.

Police and prosecutors in Grand Rapids, Michigan, may have had it even worse. In 1999, presented with DNA evidence in the rape of a college student, they couldn’t figure out which of their twin suspects to even charge with the crime.

Like the Fernandez cases, there were no witnesses and no fingerprints. To complicate matters, the suspects in this case, Tyrone and Jerome Cooper, both had records for sexual assault (Tyrone assaulted a 10-year-old girl in 1991 and Jerome a 12-year-old girl in 1998).

After hiring a biotechnology company to check some 100,000 DNA characteristics to match one twin or the other to the recovered evidence, the police came up empty. They could only tell both twins that the case would be not be forgotten and would get worked until the statute of limitations prevented prosecution.
* * *
Twins make the justice system work even harder when they’re attached to each other, literally. If a conjoined twin commits, and is convicted of, a crime, how do you punish them without also unjustly punishing their innocent sibling? Slate’s Daniel Engber and legal scholar Nick Kam have both looked at the available historic cases and suggested possible solutions to the problem.

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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
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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Weird
Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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iStock

Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]

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