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5 News Stories That Sound Like Horror Movie Plots

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Image: Hemera | Thinkstock

The media has become obsessed with the so-called “Miami Zombie” case, and for good reason. It sounds like something ripped straight out of a horror movie and brought to life. But these kinds of things seem to occur with a pretty startling frequency.

1. Last Phone Calls

In September of 2008, a Metrolink commuter train running through Chatsworth, CA collided head-on with a freight train, killing 25 people and injuring 135 others.

One of the passengers onboard was Charles Peck, a Delta Airlines employee from Salt Lake City on his way to an interview at Los Angeles’ Van Nuys Airport. Peck had his hopes staked on the job, as his fiancee, Andrea Katz, lived in California and he intended to marry her if he was hired.

When Peck wasn’t found at the wreck or in any local hospitals, Katz and Peck’s family began to hope he might have survived. Then they started getting calls from his cell phone with nothing on the other end but static. The family received 35 separate calls over a 12 hour period that night, leading rescue workers to attempt to trace the phone’s signal in hopes of finding Peck.

What they found was unexpected, however: Charles Peck had died on impact in the crash. To make matters even more eerie, Peck’s cell phone was never located, as the calls coming from it stopped about an hour before his body was found.

2. Actor Slits His Own Throat On Stage

Daniel Hoevels was no stranger to the stage, much less to his current role: That of Mortimer in Mary Stuart, a biographical play about Mary, Queen of Scots. When Mortimer’s plot to free Mary from prison fails, the character kills himself by slitting his own throat. Hoevels had been playing the role for over two years, and had done the scene numerous times. This time, however, something was about to go terribly wrong.

Instead of performing the scene with the usual dulled prop, Hoevels accidentally cut his throat with a real knife. According to some reports, the audience, unaware of the incident, began clapping wildly. Hoevels, luckily, just barely missed his carotid artery and survived.

Rumors quickly spread that the knife had been switched by a jealous rival and that authorities were treating the event as an attempted homicide. These reports were printed in newspapers worldwide, but the theater later denied the stories, saying that the event was an accident. A prop manager had purchased the knife the same day and somehow forgotten to dull the blade. Police also stated that no investigation had occurred as Hoevels had not pressed charges. He returned to his role the following night with stitches and a plaster cast around his neck.

No further details on the event have ever been released.

3. The Stolen Hand

A 47-year-old Indian-born man, identified only by the name Murugesan, had been living as a barber in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur for 16 years, seemingly without incident. One strange encounter in March of 2012 would change that forever, though.

According to Murugesan’s testimony, he was in his shop with a customer one Sunday when two men entered his business. (Murugesan is only reported to have described them as “foreigners.")

Murugesan says that one of the men asked to use his restroom. As Murugesan was directing the man to it, however, the second man came up behind Murugesan and grabbed him, holding him in place. The first man then pulled out a scythe, held out Murugesan’s left hand, and severed it.

Oddest of all, the two men then fled the shop, taking the hand with them. The men’s motives were, and still are, completely unknown, though this has not stopped speculation that they were sent by a competitor to cripple Murugesan or, more gruesomely, that they were cannibals intending to cook and eat the limb.

4. Emails from the Dead

Jack Froese died of a heart arrhythmia in June of 2011 at the age of 32, but that’s just the beginning of the story. Six months later, in November of the same year, Jack’s friends each got an e-mail from his account, signed with his name. According to Froese’s friends, no one knew his passwords or is likely to have hacked his account.

The odd part, however, is the content of the e-mails. One friend received a message imploring him to “clean [his] f---ing attic,” which related to a private conversation he and Froese had had shortly before his death.

While services do exist to deliver e-mails at a predetermined future date, Froese’s unexpected and sudden death makes it unlikely that he used one. On top of that, the e-mail received by his cousin read, in part, “I knew you were gonna break your ankle,” an injury that had occurred only a week before the message arrived.

Jack Froese’s friends and relatives have given up on seeking an explanation for the e-mails.

5. The Cell Phone Stalker

There’s annoying phone calls, and then there’s what happened to three families in Washington State in 2007. The Kuykendall, McKay, and Price families underwent weeks of harassment that went far beyond your typical obnoxious caller.

It started with 16-year-old Courtney Kuykendall’s phone sending texts to her friends that she didn’t write. Then she and her mother and father, Heather and Tim Kuykendall, began receiving disturbing phone calls at all hours from a raspy voice that threatened to slit their throats and kill their pets. This quickly turned even more terrifying when they discovered that the caller seemed to know when they were and weren’t home, who was in the house, what they were doing, and even what they were wearing.

The family began receiving voice mails that consisted of nothing but their own conversations being played back to them. After a talk with a police officer about the harassment, the caller sent the family a recording of the conversation. When the family installed a new security system, the caller was able to tell them the code.

Even odder, the majority of the calls appeared to come from Courtney Kuykendall’s phone, even when it was turned off. Not that the phone being off stopped the caller anyway, as he was apparently capable of turning the phone on and off at will.

The caller also targeted two other families; the family of Darci Price (Heather Kuykendall’s sister) and the McKays (the Kuykendall’s neighbors). Andrea McKay claimed that the caller warned her of a shooting at her daughter’s school and even called and told her “I prefer lemons” while she was cutting limes one day.

Although the Kuykendalls got new phones, numbers, and wireless accounts on three separate occasions, the calls continued to come. The police admitted that they were baffled while the Kuykendalls’ cell phone provider, Sprint, claimed that the events they were describing were impossible. Experts have speculated that the calls might have been the result of some sort of advanced cell phone hacking combined with a close knowledge of the family.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]