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112 Years Ago, Fingerprints Pointed to Murder in London

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On the morning of March 27, 1905, London shopkeeper Thomas Farrow awoke to the sound of knocking on the front door of the business he managed, Chapman’s Oil and Colour Shop. Though it was 7 a.m.—much earlier than his opening time—Farrow wasn’t about to turn down a little extra business. So he rose from bed, still clad in his pajamas, and answered the door to two men who seemed intent on getting an early-morning browsing session through Farrow’s supply of paints and brushes. It didn’t take long for Farrow to realize that he wasn’t dealing with a pair of anxious artists.

Shortly after opening the door for them, the two men made it clear to Farrow that they were there for his money. When he resisted, they proceeded to attack him, striking him at least a half-dozen times over the head with a blunt instrument. Though Farrow did his best to prevent the men from advancing beyond the storefront, they were able to make their way upstairs, where they found the money that they had come for (a sum that totaled less than $15) and Farrow’s wife, Ann, whom they also brutally attacked.

An hour later, Farrow’s teenaged assistant, 16-year-old William Jones, reported for work and was surprised to find that the door was locked. He went to another one of Chapman’s companies and came back with an assistant. Together, they got into the shop by means of a back door and found Thomas Farrow’s lifeless body.

After alerting the authorities, Sergeant Albert Atkinson arrived on the scene and made his way into the house and up the stairs, where he found Ann, who was badly injured but still breathing (like her husband, she had sustained several blows to the head). She was rushed to the hospital, but it was too late; several days later, she succumbed to her injuries, leaving no eyewitnesses to the crime. And no murder weapon had been found.

What police did have was an empty cash box with a bloody fingerprint, which indicated to them that the motive had been robbery. There were also two people who claimed to have seen two men leaving the Farrows’ shop around 7:15 a.m. that morning: two milkmen, who were able to give police a very detailed description of what the men were wearing. A third witness was able to identify 22-year-old Alfred Stratton as being in the area at the time.

Though Stratton did not have a criminal record, he and his brother Albert were well known to the police for associating with the wrong element.

When questioned, Alfred’s girlfriend confirmed that her boyfriend did own the outfit that the witnesses had described, and that he was wearing it the morning of the murder—but that he gave the clothes away that same day. For her part, Albert’s girlfriend (who said she was "in a family way by him") told police that when her beau had come home that morning, he smelled of paraffin, which she told him, and had an unexplained wad of cash on him.

On April 2, police arrested Alfred at the King of Prussia pub in Deptford; Albert was arrested the next day, not far from the Farrows' home.

When the milkmen were unable to confirm that the Stratton brothers were indeed the two men they saw leaving the Farrows’ shop, it seemed as if the case would have to be built on purely circumstantial evidence. What the two young suspects didn’t realize was that the police had been able to lift a thumbprint from the Farrows’ cash box, and that they had a relatively new investigative technique on their side: fingerprint analysis.

It was only four years earlier that Scotland Yard had begun to understand how powerful a piece of evidence a matched fingerprint could be to a criminal case, and so assembled an entire department whose sole task was to focus on fingerprint analysis.

When the Strattons appeared in court six weeks after the crime, their trial became as much about showcasing what fingerprint evidence could offer law enforcement investigating crimes as it was about proving the two men guilty. Though fingerprint evidence had been cited in murder cases in Argentina in 1892 and India in 1898, it was still a largely untested—and as such, untrusted—methodology. By the time the Stratton case was brought to trial, fingerprint evidence had first been used 3 years earlier to solve a burglary, but had never been used on a high profile case like this. Because it was such a relatively new concept, skeptics were not yet convinced that a single fingerprint could be of any value to investigators (as opposed to, say, all 10 fingers).

And so the burden of proving that Alfred Stratton’s thumbprint at the murder scene was indeed proof of his and his brother’s guilt in committing the crime was placed on the prosecution’s shoulders. And they ran with it.

The defense put its own expert, Dr. John Garson, on the stand in order to throw up several red flags as to the reliability of fingerprint evidence. But the prosecutor was able to counter (and prove) that Dr. Garson had offered his professional services to the prosecution team’s argument as well, thus making his testimony wholly unreliable.

When called to present evidence in the case, Detective Inspector Charles Collins explained to the jury: “At Scotland Yard we have now between 80,000 and 90,000 sets of fingerprints, which means between 800,000 and 900,000 impressions of digits—in my experience I have never found any two such impressions to correspond.” He then presented enlarged images of the thumbprint found at the scene and the print taken from Alfred, and pointed out the characteristics that made it clear they were from the same person.

The jury was convinced. It took them just two hours to find the Stratton brothers guilty of the murders of Thomas and Ann Farrow. The case became well known, and led law enforcement agencies worldwide to begin looking for (and at) fingerprints as a way to prove an array of crimes. In 1910, fingerprints pointed to a killer for the first time in the United States when Thomas Jennings was found guilty of the murder of Clarence Hiller in Chicago.

On May 23, 1905, Alfred and Albert Stratton were hanged at Wadsworth Prison.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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
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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]

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