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7 Bizarre Objects Used in Jailhouse Smuggling Schemes

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By Lauren Hansen

Even the lowest-security prisons will take precautions against smuggling, requiring visitors, for example, to check their belongings at the door. But for the desperately crafty, such safeguards only inspire workarounds utilizing the unexpected — from toys to animals, both dead and alive — to sneak illicit goods across the secure threshold. Here, a rundown of some of the crazy/genius vessels used in botched smuggling attempts throughout history.

1. A cat

REUTERS/Superintendent General of Prison Administration shows

On New Year's Eve, guards at a medium-security prison in northeast Brazil noticed something curious about a passing stray cat, namely that it had a bag strapped to its middle. After detaining the diminutive criminal, authorities found quite the haul, including two saws, two concrete drills, a headset, a memory card, a cell phone, and batteries. This wasn't the cat's first appearance on the prison grounds and authorities say they believe the feline was raised by inmates. While they can't blame the cat for its wrongdoing, officials admit it will be difficult to nab the real offenders, "since the cat does not speak." In the meantime, all 250 inmates are considered suspects and their wily accomplice has since been taken to a local animal shelter.

2. A coloring book

Not just for kids anymore, coloring books can also offer criminals hours of creative fun! In March 2011, the relatives of three New Jersey inmates dissolved the drug Subozone into a paste and then painted it into a coloring book. To seal their story they scribbled "To Daddy" atop the book's pages and mailed the seemingly innocent present to the facility. But authorities were already on the lookout, having received a tip that drugs were being smuggled in drawings. The book was apprehended and the prisoners, and family members, charged.

3. A baby

Balloons are often used to smuggle drugs, either as a vessel that is swallowed or just on their own, in the hopes that the latex masks the scent from dogs. While one woman's use of a cannabis-stuffed balloon wasn't unique, her placement of it was: on her baby. The limp party decoration, which was filled with 20 grams of weed, was concealed on the toddler the woman was holding as she tried to enter a New Zealand prison in 2010. Her "sad and desperate" attempt at drug smuggling, however, was foiled.

4. A pigeon

Before becoming a nuisance to New Yorkers, pigeons were actually vital during war times when, in lieu of radio, they took messages to soldiers. Carrier pigeons, as they were called, were trained at a home base, transported manually, and then set free with a note attached to the foot, because, as Brazilian inmates recently proved, the birds "instinctively fly home — always." In 2009, prisoners in southeastern Brazil reportedly bred and raised pigeons inside their jail. The birds were smuggled out, outfitted with cell phone parts by people on the outside, and then sent back to the jail. At least two made it "home" but were caught and their goods confiscated.

5. Dead birds

Not all inmates have the time, patience, and wherewithal to train carrier pigeons. Some prisoners go for the more stripped-down approach and use dead birds as their gamey packages. The plan is pretty straightforward: Get a friend on the outside to stuff dead birds with your choice of illegal drugs, have friend throw said bird over jail walls into exercise yards, pick up bird. The last step, as New Zealand prisoners found in 2007, is the most important step unless you want to spend more time locked up.

6. A cockroach

In 1938, Amarillo, Texas, County Jailer Dick Vaughn could not for the life of him figure out how two of his prisoners in solitary confinement were getting hold of cigarettes. Daily searches of the prisoners and their cells provided no clues. And yet, like clockwork, the shrewd inmates would be found puffing away. Finally, a prisoner broke down and pointed out the secret courier: A large black cockroach, a cigarette tied to its back, which scurried through a crack under the solitary cell floor. The pest was so prompt and efficient that it had regular employment with the prisoners. Rather than inciting anger, however, the lowly deliveryman inspired awe in the warden who released the men from solitary confinement, saying "anybody who could make a cockroach work deserved more freedom for his activities."

7. A wooden leg

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In August 1934, five prisoners from Indiana's Hamilton County jail escaped thanks to the group's leader, William H. Mason, who had, you might say, a leg up on his keepers. After losing his foot and lower leg to infection some years back, Mason began using a prosthetic to help him walk. During his Hamilton County incarceration, Mason received a new wooden leg in the mail, which officials came to believe carried saws, hidden in the cork part of the foot, that would help the bandits escape. The men inevitably sawed through the bars of the second floor window, ripped away the heavy mesh covering, and jumped 12 feet to the ground with the help of a metal chain.

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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]