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Serial

10 Crazy Serial Theories

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Serial

In the five weeks since Serial debuted, it's become a veritable phenomenon. Averaging roughly one million unique listeners an episode, it reaches an audience on par with the most recent season of America's Next Top Model. But Serial isn't found on network television: It's a podcast. A modern-day radio program. And its viral popularity has reached a fever pitch.

A spin-off of the popular NPR radio program This American Life, “Serial is a podcast where we unfold one nonfiction story, week by week, over the course of a season,” the podcast’s website says. “We'll stay with each story for as long as it takes to get to the bottom of it.” 

So, as co-producer (and This American Life veteran) Sarah Koenig unravels the story of Adnan Syed, the Baltimore boy who, at age 18, was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend in 1999, the audience listens along in rapture. We rejoice when Koenig reveals potential breaks in the case and struggle with the same feelings of doubt when she gets stuck. We have become armchair investigators, looking for clues in a real-life crime. And as such, we’ve developed some theories of our own.

1. Adnan Killed Hae

The simplest solution may in fact be the most difficult to believe (or at least, it is for me). And that is that Syed really did plot to kill his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, and then strangle her in the Best Buy parking lot after school on January 13, 1999. In short, it all went down just as his friend Jay told the police—or, it all went down one of the ways Jay told the police. Adnan acted alone and then asked Jay to help him hide the body, just as Jay claims. And the Asia letters? And the sketchy testimony? And the questionable cell phone evidence? And Adnan’s continued insistence on his innocence? Forget ‘em. 

2. Adnan and Jay Were in Cahoots 

If Adnan was involved with Hae’s murder, it seems more likely that he had some help from Jay. The call log, which the prosecution put so much stock in, seems to indicate that the boys were together for most of the afternoon. It shows multiple calls made to Jenn—a friend of Jay’s, not Adnan’s—between noon and 4 p.m. on the 13th. Because Adnan wasn’t friends with Jenn, these calls were most likely made by Jay. 

The two boys aren’t placed together until they arrive at Cathy’s house in the evening. Adnan, Jay, and Cathy all agree that they spent a bit of time—stoned—at her apartment. And it’s here that Adnan gets a phone call from the police (on the log, the incoming call at 6:24), asking whether he knows where Hae is. After leaving Cathy’s, Adnan’s cell phone pings a tower near Leakin Park, supposedly confirming that Adnan and Jay went there to bury Hae’s body.

For members of the Serial subreddit (a rabbit hole I don’t really recommend you go down), the most convincing bit of evidence that Jay and Adnan conspired to kill Hae together is an under-his-breath comment made by Adnan during the trial. In an early episode, Koenig reveals that during the trial, Adnan murmurs a comment that sounds like “pathetic” under his breath during Jay’s examination. Reddit commenters have a whole thread about this point, feeling that Adnan’s aside corroborates Jay and Adnan’s partnership. What a strange choice of words: pathetic. Many commenters believe it indicates that Adnan was angry at Jay for breaking an oath and ratting him out.

3. Jay Framed Adnan 

Full disclosure: This is where I’m leaning. Call me naive, but Adnan’s professions of innocence sound sincere. And there is nothing unusual about his lack of memory about the day in question—do you know where you were on a Wednesday afternoon six weeks ago? I sure don’t. So Asia’s pronouncement that he was in the library and Adnan’s assumption that he was at track practice seem equally likely. Jay, however, by his own confession, was in possession of Adnan’s car and his telephone. The vast majority of the calls made by said cell phone were to people that only Jay knew. And the two boys were not seen in the same place until Cathy’s apartment, after sunset. So really, what prevented Jay from killing and burying Hae before ever meeting up with Adnan in the evening?

Oh right, the Nisha Call.

4. The Nisha Call is a Red Herring 

I’m not convinced the Nisha Call, in capital letters, is as much of a smoking gun as Koenig makes it out to be. In fact, I think it only further corroborates my theory that Jay (with a little coverup help from his friend Jenn) killed Hae on his own and then pointed to Adnan. Because if you were in possession of your friend’s car and your friend’s phone, how would you make it look like your friend was with you? By calling someone in your friend’s phonebook whom you did not know.

During the trial, the lawyers question Nisha about a time in which Adnan called her and then put Jay—at Jay’s insistence—on the phone to say hello. While Nisha confirms that such a call did happen, she is adamant that it was made from the adult video store where Jay worked. The thing is, Jay didn’t start working at the adult video store until a few weeks after Hae’s murder. So it’s clear that the phone call Nisha remembers, and testifies about, is not the same phone call that took place on January 13. According to the call log, the phone call made to Nisha’s home phone (not her cell) on January 13 was placed at 3:32 p.m. and lasted two minutes and 22 seconds. Since Nisha testifies that this number is not connected to an answering machine, someone must have answered the phone and spoken for a little over two minutes. Since this was Nisha’s home phone, any number of people (her parents, any siblings she may have, anyone spending time at the Nisha Family Homestead) could have answered the call. And who’s to say that Jay didn’t either chat this person up under false pretenses—say, pretending to be a telemarketer or a friend of Nisha’s from school?

All I’m saying is, there’s no proof Adnan himself placed this call and spoke to Nisha.

5. Jenn Killed or Helped Jay Kill Hae 

Based on what we’ve heard so far, there’s no substantial proof that Jenn—or Jay, for that matter—had any motive to kill Hae. What we do know is that Jenn’s knowledge of Adnan’s alleged murder seems pretty dang convenient. And also that Adnan’s phone called Jenn’s home or pager seven times on January 13. Seems mighty fishy to me, and I’m hoping we clear up some of this murkiness in Thursday’s episode, which will focus on Jay.

6. The Streaker Killed Hae 

The police were a little quick to exonerate “Mr. S,” the streaker who found Hae’s body buried in Leakin Park, if you ask me. By Koenig’s own admission, Hae’s body, despite being buried in such a shallow grave, was incredibly hard to see—especially by a person who had just pulled his car over to the side of the road for an emergency pee break. So then, how did Mr. S know where Hae was buried? He was the one to bury her there, of course. Here’s how it all went down: Hae came across a nude Mr. S in the woods. Surprised, she screamed and started to run away. Not wanting to be arrested again, Mr. S. ran after Hae and attempted to subdue her. He accidentally killed her in the process. Plausible, right?

This theory has more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese (How did Hae’s car get to the park and ride? Why would Jay make up such an elaborate story if he had nothing to do with the crime? What was Hae doing in Leakin Park?), but it brings up an important point... 

7. Someone Completely Random Killed Hae 

Hae’s murder may have been a random event. Or, as Deirdre Enright, director of investigation at the University of Virginia School of Law’s Innocence Project, and her team suggest, it may be the work of an unidentified serial killer. As revealed in Episode 7, Enright and her students’ preliminary investigation unearthed a few possible bits of evidence that were dismissed out of hand by the law enforcement officials handling the case. Once Jay stepped forward, they zeroed in on Adnan—perhaps to their detriment. 

8. Stephanie and Jenn Killed Hae 

Here’s where things get a little crazy. If you dive deep into the Serial subreddit (again, not recommended), you get some pretty out-there—but then, maybe not so far out-there?—theories. One that crops up again and again is the idea that Stephanie, Jay’s girlfriend and Adnan’s close friend, was involved with Hae’s murder. Despite being close with both Jay and Adnan, no calls were placed to Stephanie on January 13. This is especially strange because January 13 was Stephanie’s birthday, and the whole reason Jay needed to borrow Adnan’s car was to buy Stephanie a birthday present. 

To add more fuel to this theory, Adnan did speak to Stephanie twice on the night of January 12. Could it be he told her something about Hae that angered her? Made her angry enough to kill Hae? If Stephanie was Hae’s murderer, it would make perfect sense for her to turn to Jay—her boyfriend—to help her cover it up.

9. Some Dude Named Roy Davis Killed Hae

Leave it to reddit to hone in on a specific, seemingly unrelated suspect. But maybe the craziest part about this theory is that it might not be so crazy at all. In 2004, DNA evidence helped to convict a 50-year-old man named Roy Sharonnie Davis III of raping and strangling 18-year-old Woodlawn resident Jada Lambert. Lambert’s murder happened in May 1998—just nine months before Hae went missing. Even creepier, Davis lived just six miles away from Woodlawn High School and even closer to Campfield Early Learn Center, the school where Hae was supposed to pick up her cousin. The redditor points out that Davis was also charged in 1996 with possession of marijuana. Could he possibly have purchased said marijuana from … Jay?

10. Jay Is a Criminal Informant

One rather imaginative redditor proposes that Jay was actually a criminal informant. According to this commenter, this would explain why the police were so quick to trust Jay and rely on his testimony, and would also explain why there is no record of a private meeting that was known to take place between Jay, his lawyer, and the judge residing over his plea hearing.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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