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Liverpool Evening Express

The Mysterious Case of the Skeleton in the Cylinder

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Liverpool Evening Express

Around 1941, the Germans dropped a bomb on a street in Liverpool, exposing among the rubble a watertight metal cylinder about 6.5 feet long. For several years it lay on the side of the street, more or less ignored. People used it as a bench, kids played on it, and nobody thought it was anything particularly unusual—until one day somebody took a look inside.

Liverpool had been the most heavily bombed British city outside London during the Blitz. Much of the city was destroyed, and amid the chaos, the explosion on Great Homer Street seemed just like any other. Rubble had been cleared away by American soldiers in bulldozers, who left behind some larger chunks of debris, including the aforementioned cylinder—which went largely ignored until July 13, 1945.

On that day, a group of children managed to break part of the cylinder open and peer inside. What they saw inside likely chilled them to the core: a corpse.

The police were alerted, and the cylinder was opened fully to reveal the skeleton of a man who, many locals presumed, had perished in the bombings a few years earlier. Curiously, however, the man was dressed head-to-toe in clothing much more suited to the Victorian era and lying on some sort of cloth. He also still had a few strands of hair attached to his skull, which was propped up on a makeshift pillow formed of a brick wrapped in burlap.

Rumors, speculation, and confusion surrounded the first few days of the discovery, with local newspaper the Evening Express stating that “at the present stage there did not seem to be any suggestion of murder. It was quite possible that the man was of the ‘queer’ type and had crawled into the cylinder to sleep. He may have been dead 20 years.” (In this context, queer likely meant somebody with a mental illness.) The mystery deepened a few days later, when the coroner, one Mr. G. C. Mort, announced that along with the body they had discovered two diaries (sadly illegible), a postcard, and a rail notice, all dating from 1884 or 1885, as well as a well-worn signet ring, a set of keys, and an undated receipt from a T. C. Williams and Co.

An investigation by the coroner showed that T. C. Williams and Co. had been a local paint manufacturing company that operated from the 1870s until 1884, when the company fell into financial ruin and closed for good. Its owner, Thomas Cregeen Williams, was declared bankrupt in 1884. Creditors were asked repeatedly to come forward and stake their claim to his assets, but by 1885 Williams had disappeared. Local papers announced the mystery solved—but the coroner wasn’t so sure. Williams had a son, born in 1859, and some believed that it was actually his body in the cylinder. This theory was ruled out when the investigation found the younger Williams buried in a cemetery in Leeds. Meanwhile, the elder Williams’s whereabouts remained unconfirmed.

As outlandish as it may seem that a body could lay undiscovered in residential Liverpool for 60 years, as far as the police were concerned, that appeared to have been what happened. On August 31, 1945, the official inquest recorded an open verdict, meaning the death was deemed suspicious but without an obvious cause. According to the Liverpool Evening Express, the coroner said it was "impossible to find the cause of death, which he believed took place in 1885.” Although the body in the cylinder has never been officially confirmed as that of T. C. Williams, this still stands as the prevailing theory.

But what of the cylinder? And how did the body end up in there in the first place? According to an official from the Home Office in 1945, the cylinder seemed to be part of a ventilation system (no traces of paint were found inside, ruling out any chance of a freak paint manufacturing accident). Was T. C. Williams sleeping in the vents of his old factory to hide from the creditors, and had he succumbed to deadly fumes? (The cylinder was found about a mile from the factory, but the bombs and bulldozers might have moved it.) Did he, as one theory put forward by the blog Strange Company suggests, fake his own death using this body as a decoy while making a break for America? Being that Liverpool was a major port city in the 1880s, it’s not logistically impossible, if perhaps a little farfetched. We might never know for sure. Perhaps the answer is still lying at the side of a road in Liverpool somewhere, just waiting to be noticed.

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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
crime
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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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