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6 Terrible People and How They Were Captured

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Recent events have provided an interesting look at how law enforcement officials identify and hunt down very terrible people. Here are a few infamous killers, and how they were captured.

1. James Earl Ray

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After murdering Martin Luther King, James Earl Ray beat his feet to Canada, where he holed up under the name “Ramon George Sneyd.” Two months later, he tried to abscond to London, but was detained at Heathrow for having a fake Canadian passport. It didn’t help that he was found to be carrying his actual American passport as well. (Passports are not Pokemon cards, and Customs does not like it when you try to collect ‘em all.) He was extradited and spent the next 29 years rotting in prison. 

2. Eric Rudolph

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Though the 1996 Olympic Park Bombing is his most infamous attack, Eric Rudolph whiled away the years that followed by sending bombs to abortion clinics and a lesbian bar. He spent five years on the FBI Ten Most Wanted list, and roamed the Appalachian Mountains. He was accidentally captured in 2003, when a rookie cop thought he was robbing a convenience store.

3. Ted Kaczynski

The Smoking Gun

The Unabomber, as Ted Kaczynski was better known, spent 17 years sending bombs to schools, airlines, and businesses. The best way to summarize Kaczynski is to say he was really crazy and really smart. He was accepted to Harvard at the age of 16, earned his PhD from the University of Michigan, and at age 25 was made a professor of mathematics at Berkeley—the youngest in the university’s history. Then he built a cabin in Montana and created his own little Walden in Hell. Basically, his motivation for becoming a terrorist was a seething hatred for civilization. Also, he loved trees. He was captured when David Kaczynski noticed that the Unabomber Manifesto basically plagiarized the unhinged writings of his brother. For what it’s worth, David was a little leery of just calling of the FBI, fearing a repeat of Ruby Ridge. At any rate, if the search warrant is any indication, the FBI wasn’t all that convinced that it had the right guy. This changed when they raided the little cabin and found a bunch of bomb parts and tens of thousands of handwritten pages of insanity.

You might be wondering how he got a cool name like Unabomber. The FBI task force investigating him was called UNABOM, for “University and Airline bomber.” Today he is an active member of the Harvard Alumni Association. 

4. John Wilkes Booth

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Originally, John Wilkes Booth planned to kidnap Lincoln, but later thought it might be a good idea to kill him, the vice president, and the secretary of state. After he shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, he dashed for the stage door, on the other side of which was a horse. (His accomplice: Joseph “Peanuts” Burroughs.) Booth saddled up and bolted for Confederate territory. It was a surprisingly well-thought-out plan. His path south had a minimum of railroads or telegraphs, and was dotted with sympathizers. Two weeks later, he had taken refuge in a tobacco farmer’s barn. (The farmer didn’t know Lincoln had been assassinated, as mail delivery had ceased with the collapse of the Confederacy. At any rate, Booth was hiding under the name “James Boyd.”) When federal agents, ever on his path, finally tracked down Booth, they ordered him out of the barn. Booth refused, and so they set the barn on fire, and shot Booth just to be sure.

5. Lee Harvey Oswald

The Smoking Gun

Forty-five minutes after Lee Harvey Oswald pulled the trigger that killed John F. Kennedy, a policeman spotted him on the street. Oswald shot the cop four times. He then slipped into the back entrance of a movie theater without paying. A nearby shopkeeper noticed him doing this, and told a clerk in the box office, who called the police. When the 5-0 arrived, the movie was stopped and the lights were brought up. Oswald tried to kill his second cop of the day, but his pistol misfired, and he was apprehended. (All of this presupposes that the actual assassin wasn’t the Cigarette Smoking Man.) 

6. Carlos the Jackal

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Ilich Ramírez Sánchez is better known as Carlos the Jackal. He tried to blow up the Bank Hapoalim in London, but when he threw the first bomb in the building it bounced against the door and caused only cosmetic damage. The second bomb didn’t detonate, merely breaking a window. He launched car bombs against newspapers, threw grenades into restaurants, and tried to blow up a couple of airliners. He murdered two French investigators and an informant. He held attendees of an OPEC meeting hostage, threatening to “kill one every fifteen minutes” until his demands were met. (Three people had already been killed in the attack.) Carlos didn’t follow through with his threat, sparing an Iranian finance minister and a Saudi oil minister. Because of this, the terrorist organization to which he belonged fired him for not being evil enough.

He eventually linked up with the East German Stasi, and went on a European bombing spree. In 1991, he moved to Sudan, where he was granted asylum for being just the right amount of evil. Three years later, however, Carlos the Jackal had minor surgery on his testicles, and Sudanese agents tranquilized him and handed him off to the French. These days, he alternates between boasting of his wicked deeds, and then claiming innocence of the ones keeping him in jail.

Why is Ilich Ramírez Sánchez called Carlos the Jackal, you ask? When he joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, his recruiter nicknamed him “Carlos” because he (i.e. Ramírez Sánchez) was born in South America, and political correctness just wasn’t a big thing at Terrorist H.Q. The Guardian newspaper affixed “the Jackal” after a copy of the novel The Day of the Jackal was found with some of his belongings. If only Ramírez Sánchez had picked up a copy of William Blatty’s novel from the same year, we might today speak of Carlos the Exorcist.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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