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FloridaMemory.org

11 Products Made by Prisoners

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FloridaMemory.org

Prisoners make millions of license plates each year. But what else do they make for us?

1. Books for the Blind

There are 36 prison Braille-writing programs in the United States. Through the American Printing House for the Blind, offenders help write K-12 textbooks for blind students. In Missouri, the Center for Braille and Narration Production employs 102 convicts, many whom are certified through the Library of Congress. They transcribe anything, from novels to music.

2. Lingerie

In the 1990s, Victoria’s Secret and J. C. Penney hired subcontractor Third Generation, who, in turn, hired people to stitch their lingerie and leisure wear—35 South Carolina inmates, Mother Jones reports.

3. Park Benches and Picnic Tables

In Florida, PRIDE (Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises) trains about 4000 inmates, who produce and provide over 3000 products and services. PRIDE’s forestry service makes park furniture like picnic tables, park benches, and wooden trashcan holders. Sixty-nine percent of PRIDE graduates land jobs after jail.

4. Military Jackets and Battle Garb

Federal Prison Industries, better known as UNICOR, consists entirely of convicts working at 89 factories. Together, they help clothe the United States military, making jackets, uniforms, helmets, shoes, and even flak vests. For police officers, they craft body armor and holsters. 

5. Human Silhouette Targets

Ironically, convicts at UNICOR also make human silhouette targets for law enforcer training. The shadowy targets help crime fighters in the FBI, Homeland Security, and U.S. Customs hone their aims. 

6. Old IKEA Products

From the 1970s to 1980s, political prisoners in Cold War-struck East Germany made products for the furniture company IKEA. The prisoners were reportedly paid 40 East German marks per month, about 4 percent of the monthly salary of the average East German worker. 

7. Baseball Caps

Few things are as American as the baseball cap and free enterprise. Well, ball caps happen to be one of the few items UNICOR is allowed to sell to private customers and companies. (In an effort to keep private goods and prison-made goods from competing, UNICOR is generally forbidden from selling products to anyone outside the government.)

8. Canoes

Colorado Correction Industries oversees approximately 60 inmate work programs. Jailbirds at Fremont County Jail, for example, build fiberglass-sealed canoes. They use scraps from the prison’s furniture shop and sell the canoes for around $1500. Other Colorado programs help craft those ubiquitous college dormitory desks and bookshelves.

9. Artsy Knick Knacks

San Quentin State Prison in California is a scary place. It houses some of the most menacing criminals in the nation, and it’s home to the largest death row in the United States. But at least it has a gift shop. There, you can buy convict-made music boxes, drawings, and paintings. You can even get yourself a greeting card made by one of death row’s own.

10. Blue Jeans

The Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution is home to a 47,000 square foot facility: The Prison Blues Jeans Factory. It makes jeans, jackets, T-shirts, and hats, which you can check out here.

11. Horses

In Colorado, the Wild Horses Inmate Program (WHIP) trains wild mustangs, prepping them for adoption. Since 1986, the program has trained over 5000 mustangs. In Maryland, Second Chances Farm takes in retired thoroughbred racehorses. It rescues the out-of-work horses from the slaughterhouse and teaches outgoing inmates animal caretaking skills.

Get out of Jail Bonus: Coffee Beans

When some inmates leave the slammer, they roast coffee beans. I Have a Bean, owned by Second Chance Coffee Company, is a roasting plant in Illinois that helps ex-convicts restart their lives. The facility roasts six different kinds of coffee bean, from Costa Rica to Ethiopia.

Primary image courtesy of Florida Memory.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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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]

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