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11 Facebook Status Updates Gone Horribly Wrong

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Getty Images

Facebook is usually just a running feed of pictures, talk about the weather, links to lists and quizzes, and inspirational quotes. (Mine is, anyway; maybe your friends are more exciting.) But sometimes Facebook status updates are a little more interesting. And by “interesting,” we mean “criminal.” Here are 11.

1. Millions of people have posted photos of cars on the world’s most popular social network, but pictures of stolen cars (and in this case, a lawnmower) are shared less frequently. Probably because it’s not a good idea, as five men from Loomis, California discovered earlier this week. The pics posted by one man were identified as stolen property by another resident of the town, who then alerted authorities. When police arrived, they found a chop shop operation and five new tenants for the Placer County Jail.

2. When a judge orders a ban on social media for jurors during a testy court case, maybe the best idea is to obey that order. Maybe the worst idea is to ignore it, rant on Facebook about how much you hate jury duty, share details of the case with your 500 closest friends and family, and then lie about it under oath when the judge finds out. A Boca Raton man has been charged with contempt for doing exactly that, and faces up to six months in jail if convicted.

3. As reality TV stars and criminals have taught us time and again, some selfies aren’t for sharing. A Florida man, confident in his ability to sell drugs undetected, posted photos of himself in his car holding a bag of marijuana. In the background, a local police cruiser is clearly visible at a stop in the next lane. Police took the next photos of Port St. Lucie’s sneakiest drug dealer … during the undercover sting that landed him in jail. (That photo was posted to Facebook as well.)

4. In movies where people intend to commit a crime, there is usually a scene that involves disabling any nearby cameras. But two brothers from New Jersey did it backward: They filmed themselves setting fire to an abandoned mobile home, and then, as you might expect, they shared the video to reap those sweet, sweet Likes. Around six hours later, both men were arrested and waiting for someone to post their $100,000 bond.

5. What does the law say about a motorist’s ability to shoot video while driving and screaming at people who ride bicycles? At least one part of that—threatening cyclists with a motor vehicle—is considered reckless endangerment. No charges were filed for driving while filming in the case of one Alabama man, whose Facebook videos were spotted by a bicycle news writer and reported to police. After his arrest, the offender posted a much more thoughtful update: “I am truly sorry for anyone I may have offended... and please everyone share the road and be very aware of bicycle riders everywhere.”

6. You may be wondering what to do should you ever find yourself in possession of $5,000 worth of stolen goods—namely, rare coins, vintage comics, electronics, and a painting of Hank Williams. The wrong answer is “Try to sell them on Facebook.” A Bridgeport, Tennessee, man chose to do so in May 2014 and found himself in city jail. Some items, which he’d already sold, are still missing, but the rest were returned to their rightful owner before the man’s arrest.

7. Let’s say you’ve decided to break into someone’s home. The people who live there own a semiautomatic rifle, which you steal. One thing you definitely shouldn’t do is take the gun home, post a bunch of pics to Facebook of yourself holding it, and then have a four-hour standoff with the police when they come to arrest you. Unfortunately, a man in Abilene, Texas, chose option B, so authorities were able to identify him easily from his many and varied gun-wielding selfies. Even more unfortunately, he was a convicted felon—so having a gun is illegal—and now faces charges for theft on top of previously unresolved parole violations.

8. In 2011 a woman in the UK was drawing income support, housing benefit, and council tax benefit, citing single parenthood and unemployment. But then a city investigator noticed that the woman’s Facebook page was filled with photos of her family enjoying vacations to Turkey and an elaborate wedding in Barbados (to the husband she said she didn’t have). In addition to her 120-day prison sentence, she was ordered to pay back the £15,000 she’d swindled from taxpayers.

9. A teen inspired by the film Shank, in which gangs take over London, posted a series of updates encouraging his Facebook friends to “kill a million Fedz” and one taking requests for a planned looting trip. “Rioting 2nyt anyone want anything from Flannels?” earned him a sentence of 33 months in jail.

10. Don’t tell the Internet you’ve kidnapped a woman… especially if you haven’t. An Illinois man did, and the cops received a tip from a concerned acquaintance. No unwilling resident was found; the updates were apparently “part of a creative writing project,” but the heroin residue, bag of marijuana and bathroom “covered in white powder” were very real.

11. When a Lehigh Valley man discovered his wife was cheating on him, he began posting all manner of horrifying things to Facebook, which were then reported to authorities and the FBI. He threatened his estranged wife, a former employer who fired him, an FBI agent, and most frightening of all, a plan to attack schoolchildren: “Hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a kindergarten class." The man claimed the updates were rap lyrics he wrote, but jurors were unconvinced.

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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]