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Tim Kiser

The Haunted Prison

Original image
Tim Kiser

Photograph by Tim Kiser.

The West Virginia State Penitentiary is an imposing place. The building is on the historic register, and the prison itself, closed for years, is on every ghost hunter's list as one of the most haunted places in America.

Prison History

Photograph by Flickr user Sideonecincy.

The West Virginia State Penitentiary was founded in 1866, when land was purchased in Moundsville, and a temporary wooden prison was built. The main stone buildings were completed in 1876. It held 251 inmates then, and conditions were considered good. As time went on, the prison became more crowded, and by 1929, they were putting three men in the 5x7-foot cells. An expansion project took 30 years to complete, and barely eased the overcrowding. The prison population was up to 2,000 in the 1960s. Conditions deteriorated until the inmates ran the institution, and disease was rampant. The institution made the Department of Justice’s top ten list of the most violent prisons.

Photograph by Flickr user Sideonecincy.

On New Years Day in 1986, the prison saw a riot that lasted two days and left three inmates dead (this was the second riot; the first was in 1973). Later that year, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the tiny cells constituted cruel and unusual punishment, and the prison began to transfer inmates to more modern facilities, but not before several notorious escapes took place. The penitentiary closed for good in 1995.

The Prison Dead

Photograph by Flickr user Sideonecincy.

Ninety-four men were executed for their crimes at West Virginia State. Eighty-five were hung, including Frank Hyer, who was convicted of murdering his wife, in 1931. He fell so hard that he was decapitated, and that was the last execution that was open to the general public. Nine more men were executed in "Old Sparky," the electric chair that was built by a prison inmate. The chair is still on display at the prison.

One of the ghosts that supposedly haunt the prison is that of Avril Adkins, who was hanged twice. The first time, there was an error that caused him to fall on his head and sustain injuries. The second time, he was hanged properly until dead.

Thirty-six murders occurred inside the prison walls. And that figure pales beside the number of prisoners who died of natural causes. There is a small cemetery outside the prison walls where inmates whose bodies were not claimed by family members were buried. But even closer are ancient Indian burial grounds. After all, that's how Moundsville got its name. Tales of those restless souls still walking the floors of the prison abound and draw ghost hunters, both professional (from TV) and amateur, to the prison.

The Greenbrier Ghost

Photograph from the West Virginia State Archives.

Zona Heaster Shue was found dead in 1897. Her husband, Erasmus Trout Shue, dressed her for burial before the doctor arrived to determine the cause of death. Shue wailed and moaned and would not leave his wife's corpse until she was buried. He even provided her favorite shawl to wrap around her neck. The doctor gave her a cursory look, and wrote down that she fainted dead by childbirth. But Zona's mother, Mary Jane Heaster, had her suspicions. She testified that Zona's ghost visited her over a period of four nights and described how Shue had killed her. Heaster took her story to local prosecutor John Alfred Preston and convinced him to reopen the case. Based on the visitation, the body was exhumed, and Zona's neck was found to be broken. She also had bruising, indicating she had been manhandled. It was enough for a jury to convict Shue of killing Zona. Shue spent the next three years at the prison in Moundsville, where he died in 1900.

Haunted Tours

Photograph by Flickr user Sideonecincy.

The Moundsville Economic Development Council leased the property and set up a law enforcement training center. The prison is also open for tourists. You can see the prison Tuesday through Sunday through November. You can also book a private ghost hunting tour between midnight and 6AM by reservation. During the Halloween season, there is also the Dungeon of Horrors tour, which is a haunted house-type tour in the evening, on weekends through November 2nd.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]