CLOSE

The Weird Week in Review

Kidnap Victim Saved by Twitter Followers

Lynn Peters of Johannesburg, South Africa, sent out a Tweet that her boyfriend had been kidnapped Sunday night. He was put into the trunk of his own car by armed carjackers! However, the unnamed man was able to contact Peters via phone. Her alert, which included his license plate number, was retweeted and picked up by a network of 100,000 users who monitor roads for police activity. A private security force, alerted by the RTs, found and stopped the vehicle, and freed the boyfriend. The carjackers fled on foot.

600-pound Man Cut Out of Home

An unnamed man in Upper Burrell Township, Pennsylvania, experienced a medical emergency and needed to be rushed to the hospital. Police had to break into the home, then found the house in such a mess that they could not find a clear path to bring the 600-pound patient out. The fire department decided the home was too toxic to enter, so the Hazmat team came out and cut a hole in the side of the house with chainsaws. Then the fire department used a pulley to extract the patient, who was taken on a flatbed truck to a waiting ambulance. The man's medical condition is not known.

Indian Authorities Place Bounty on Vampires

The streets of several villages in the state of Tamil Nadu in India are virtually deserted after dark because residents are in fear of vampires. Cattle have been dying under mysterious circumstances, and villagers believe it is the work of blood-sucking supernatural forces (Ratha Kaatteri). Authorities believe the vandalism is the work of criminals who want to keep villagers terrified so they can carry on bootlegging and other illegal activities. Still, the local council has offered a reward of 100,000 rupees ($1,950) to anyone who catches a vampire. They say the reward is to challenge the residents' beliefs in the supernatural nature of the crimes.

Police Help Blind Writer Recover Work

Trish Vickers of Charmouth, Dorset, England, lost her sight seven years ago, but continues to write in longhand with a system that keeps her lines straight. During a particularly creative streak, she wrote 26 pages of a novel. However, the ink in her pen had run out. She only found out when her son Simon came to check her work.

Ms Vickers, who used to run the Bridport gift shop Zoot Allures in South Street, said: “We battled with various ideas until we thought of the police.

“We rang them and asked to speak to their fingerprint section. They said if there was anything they could do they would be happy to help.

“I was gobsmacked and so happy.”

Working in their spare time, the police officers were able to decipher and restore all 26 pages -and they said they enjoyed reading the story.

German Civil Servant Did Nothing for 14 Years

An unnamed German man retired at age 65 when his civil service position was eliminated. In an email letter addressed to his colleagues in the city of Menden, he boasted that he had done no actual work since 1998. However, in that time he had gone to his office and collected 745,000 euros ($980,000) in pay from the municipal state surveyor's office. He blamed the waste on authorities who hired another surveyor to do the same job, leaving him with nothing to do. The man has been in the same job since 1974. Mayor Volker Fleige was upset when he received the email, and said the employee had never once complained before now.

Meth Lab Found in Walmart Bathroom

A custodial employee at the Walmart store in Boaz, Alabama, found a surprise while cleaning the bathroom. It was a "shake-and-bake" (single use) meth lab! Police confirmed the apparatus included a water bottle and pseudoephedrine pills, of a brand not sold at Walmart. Police Chief Terry Davis said his department had found such methamphetamine setups before, but never in a public business. The Marshall County Drug Enforcement Unit destroyed the cooker.

Toilet Plunger Used as Weapon

Lawrence Deptola was arrested for attempted bank robbery in Utica, New York on Thursday. He allegedly went to three different banks and demanded money, each time threatening tellers with a toilet plunger. He yelled obscenities at bank employees, but left without money each time. The incidents were recorded on surveillance video. Utica police in an unmarked car found Deptola leaving the scene of the third robbery attempt. The suspect fled when he saw officers approach, but was caught soon afterward. The plunger was recovered inside the bank.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
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!

Original image
Stephen Missal
crime
arrow
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
Original image
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]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES