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5 Pets Who Helped Solve Their Owners' Murders

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While it’s widely acknowledged pets can offer comfort, companionship, and fuzzy tummies for rubbing, it can also be reassuring to know your furry pals may one day provide the necessary information to find your killer. That could be the case for the late Martin Duram, whose pet parrot Bud has taken to vocalizing his owner's possible last words after a fatal shooting in May 2015: "Don't [expletive] shoot!"

Bud also likes to replicate what sounds like an argument between a man and woman, leading Duram's family to believe it may have been a domestic incident gone awry. (According to Michigan NBC affiliate WOODTV, his wife, Glenna, is a suspect.)

It's not yet known whether Bud's chirpy testimony will ever be admissible in court. Until then, here are five animals that made sure justice was served.

1. BIRD THE COCKATOO

Texas native Kevin Butler was such a fan of NBA great Larry Bird that he ignored the potential redundancy and named his pet cockatoo after him. Friends said Bird was very devoted to Butler, and when Butler’s home was broken into in 2001, Bird tried to fend off his owner's murderers before he was mortally wounded himself. One of them, Daniel Torres, denied involvement until prosecutors presented evidence linking the DNA recovered from Bird’s beak to Torres. He received life in prison. Bird, just 18 inches tall, was heralded as “valiant” during the trial.

2. CHIEF THE PITBULL-LAB MIX

A Seattle, Washington couple and their dog were found slain in 1998, the apparent victims of a home invasion. While standing trial, suspects Ken Leuluaialii and George Tuilefano were surprised to learn that prosecutors planned a landmark entry of evidence: Chief’s DNA. Dog blood had been found on the defendants’ clothing during the investigation, and forensic analysis was able to match it to the deceased pit bull-Labrador mix. In his opening argument, prosecutor Tim Bradshaw stated that “the irony will be that the witness who could never speak, even when he was alive, will present the most eloquent of evidence."

3. TWO CATS

When pet shop owner Lori Auker disappeared in May 1989, her family thought the worst. Unfortunately, their suspicions were correct: After almost three weeks of searching, Lori’s body was discovered near a dirt road in Pennsylvania. Police focused on her estranged husband, Robert Auker, who had been following her in the weeks leading up to her death. Surveillance footage placed a car resembling his 1984 Chevrolet Celebrity in the vicinity, and his parents reported Auker had been meticulously scrubbing the interior before selling it.

Despite his efforts, forensic workers found several cat hairs that later proved to be an identical match to the victim’s two felines. The fur was also stuck to a splint Auker had been wearing on his hand the day Lori disappeared. He was given the death penalty.

4. HIRA THE PARROT

Hira was the only witness to Neelam Sharma’s murder in February 2014; the attacker had also dispatched of the family dog, who had been barking during the struggle. Widower Vijay Sharma, editor of a Hindi daily newspaper, was unable to think of any solid leads to help police until his brother-in-law noticed Hira would become highly agitated whenever his nephew, Ashutosh, visited—or even when his name was mentioned in conversation. Vijay says he informed police and Ashutosh confessed to the robbery-turned-murder. "He accepted his crime and informed us that he was accompanied by an accomplice," officer Shalabh Mathur said. "They had entered the house with the intention of taking away cash and other valuables." Afraid his aunt would recognize him, he killed her.

Police later downplayed the bird’s participation, saying it was an unexplained bite mark on Ashutosh that made him their primary focus. Whatever the case, local news media initially reported Hira’s name as Hercule the Parrot, a rather morbid attempt at humor.  

5. AN UNNAMED GRASSHOPPER

While not quite a pet, one insect found itself dying for a noble cause. According to “forensic entomologist” M. Lee Goff, a 1985 homicide in Texas resulted in precious little physical evidence—save for a grasshopper that had been found on the victim’s clothing that was missing a limb. Further investigation of one suspect revealed that he happened to have a severed insect leg stuck in the cuff of his pants. When Goff re-assembled the bug, he found it to be a perfect match, and the suspect was convicted. Goff went on to be a consultant for the CSI television franchise and continues to use entomology to help determine time, location, and cause of death.

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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
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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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