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Historic Vampires

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While researching the tale of Mercy Brown for the Cemetery Stories post, I read that she was the only accused vampire ever exhumed in the United States. The very idea that this is a notable fact gave me the willies. Is this so common in other countries? As it turns out, exhumation over supernatural suspicions happened quite often in our history, and many people have been accused of vampirism during their lives. There are so many such people that I limited this list to examples of the different reasons people became known as vampires. Warning: these stories are all gruesome.

The Serial Killer: Vincenzo Verzeni

Vincenzo Verzeni of Bergamo, Italy, was a serial killer who derived sexual pleasure from the act of murder by strangulation and from drinking blood and eating the entrails of the deceased. He was called The Vampire Strangler of Bergamo in the press. In 1873 he was arrested for attempted murder after an interrupted attempt at strangling at teenage girl. Verzeni was found guilty of two murders and several attempted murders and was sentenced to hard labor for life at a psychiatric hospital. He died in custody in 1918.

The Torture Victim: Clara Geisslerin

Clara Geisslerin was a 69-year-old widow in the town of Gelnhausen, Germany when she was accused of witchcraft in 1597. Among the charges were graverobbing, murder, and consorting with demons. Under torture (by thumbscrews and the rack), she confessed to sexual relations with demons in the form of animals and to drinking the blood of sixty children that she had killed. She also named twenty other women who were guilty. However, Geisslerin recanted her confession when the torture was stopped. Local authorities, fearing for her soul, resumed the torture a second time. Geisslerin again confessed, adding that she had conceived many children with the demons and had killed them all. She recanted once more as soon as she was taken off the rack, and told her accusers that God would be their judge. The other twenty suspects had been questioned and implicated Geisslerin by then, so the old woman was tortured a third time. A confession was once again elicited, but Geisslerin could not recant this time because she died under the pressure. The judges in the case attributed her death to the devil, who did not want Geisslerin to disclose any further details. Case closed.

The Deceased: Arnold Paole

Arnold Paole was a Serbian soldier who lived a relatively undistinguished life, but became a famous vampire after his death from a fall around the year 1725. Paole had told a tale of how he was once bitten by a vampire in Turkey, but that he had taken steps to reverse the curse, which involved eating soil from the vampire's grave and smearing himself with the vampire's blood. That tale was remembered by those left behind in the village of Medve?a. Within a month of his death, four people reported that Paole had attacked them; all four died soon after. Paole was, of course, blamed for their deaths and his body was exhumed. Expecting to find a skeleton, the villagers were shocked to find he looked rather fresh (after all, Paole had only been buried a few weeks earlier). The appearance of fresh blood at his mouth and the lack of decomposition convinced them that he was, indeed, a vampire. When they drove a stake through the body, Paole's corpse groaned and emitted blood. The villagers then burned the body. They then exhumed the four "victims" and, wonder of wonders, found they, too, were not yet decomposed. They were all staked and then burned.

A few years later in 1731, more than a dozen Medveda citizens died of a mysterious malady. Two of the dead had been to Turkey and brought back tales of vampires, and one had reported she had eaten meat from a sheep that Arnold Paole (or possibly one of his "victims") had slaughtered. The regional authorities sent a contagious disease expert to investigate. He found no evidence of a disease, but suspected rampant malnutrition as the cause of the deaths. The villagers, however, were convinced of a vampire curse. Once again, all the victims were dug up from their graves. Some were found to be in a "vampire condition" (not decomposed). Those bodies were beheaded and burned. Others that were observed to be rotting were reburied as innocent.

The Butcher: Fritz Haarmann

German serial killer Fritz Haarmann became known as the Butcher of Hanover and the Vampire of Hanover as well when his crimes came to light in 1924. Children playing near a river found a stash of human bones, which led to a search and discovery of more than 500 body parts in varying stages of decay. Haarmann had served time as a pedophile and dealer in stolen goods (including black market meat), so he was one of many suspects. He was also a police informant. Haarmann was arrested in the act of luring a boy into his apartment, and a search of the premises turned up bloodstains and some possessions belonging to missing boys. His defense? The blood was from his black market butchering business! Haarmann later confessed to raping, killing, and butchering "between 50 and 70" young men. He was found guilty of 24 murders and suspected of several others, and was executed by beheading in 1925. It was never proved conclusively that the meat he sold was from his victims, but that's what many believe.

The Necrophiliac: Francois Bertrand

Sergeant Francois Bertrand of the French Army earned the nickname the Vampire of Montparnasse by his habit of graverobbing for pleasure in the 1840s. Bertrand had been a model soldier. He also felt an attraction to dead bodies, and would invade cemeteries to dig them up. Bertrand was not attracted to male corpses, but often had to dig up several bodies in order to find a female. Those he would mutilate, often after gratifying himself sexually. He sometimes bit or tasted the flesh as well. His compulsion led him to cemeteries all over France, wherever his unit was stationed, but he was arrested for his activities in Montparnasse. Bertrand was court-martialed and convicted only of damage to state property for violating the graves. After serving his one-year sentence, Bertrand committed suicide in 1850.

The Tyrant: Vlad III

Vlad the Impaler was the ruler of Wallachia from 1456 to 1462 (plus two other short reigns). The region is now part of Romania. He is remembered most for his atrocities while consolidating his power, expanding his realm, and defending it against enemies. Between 40,000 and 100,000 of his enemies were tortured and killed by impalement, a very painful and public method of death. Vlad was known to take pleasure in the procedure. The nickname Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler in English) was bestowed after his death in 1476. Vlad's father, Vlad II, took the name Dracul from the organization called the Order of the Dragon (Dracul is Romanian for "the dragon"). The Romanian suffix "ulea" means "son of," so Vlad III was sometimes called Dracula. Bram Stoker used the name for his fictional vampire, which is how Vlad became associated with vampirism. Christopher Lee, who played Dracula in several Hammer Horror films, portrayed Vlad III in a 1975 documentary.

See also: Historic Werewolves and Real Monsters: The Science Behind the Legends

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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

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.

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