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The Time a Ghost Had His Day in Court

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Thomas Blackwelder told the attorney the plain truth as he understood it. On July 6, 1925, his neighbor, James “Pink” Chaffin, knocked on Blackwelder’s door and asked him to accompany him on a short trip to visit his mother. An eyewitness was needed, Pink said, because Pink’s father had told him he would find something very valuable hidden in an old family Bible.

That it was Pink's father, James L. Chaffin, who told his son where to find the item was notable for one very particular reason: The elder Chaffin had been dead for nearly four years.

Courtesy of Davie County Public Library

For the two decades prior to his death, James L. Chaffin owned and toiled on a farm near Mocksville, North Carolina. With his wife, he raised four sons—Abner, Marshall, John, and James Jr. Although any reliable accounts of the family dynamic are hard to come by, it appeared that Chaffin was extremely close to Marshall in particular. When the Chaffins' own home was destroyed in a fire [PDF], they went to live Marshall and his wife, Susie, until their property was restored.

As a possible result of this close relationship, it was Susie who kept Chaffin’s last will and testament in her possession. Dated 1905, it named Marshall his father's sole beneficiary, a fact that his brothers were surprised—and dismayed—to learn upon their father’s untimely death in 1921, due to an accidental fall. When Marshall died just a year later from heart problems, the Chaffin property was granted to Susie. At no point did anyone offer the remaining brothers a portion of the inheritance.

While none of the Chaffin brothers was rich, Pink was known to be stretching his dollars as far as he could, planting sugarcane and cotton on his property and selling hand-carved axe handles for 25 cents apiece. He, his wife, and their children occupied a four-room home. By most measures, having a share of his father’s inheritance would have allowed for a more comfortable lifestyle. Still, none of the siblings contested the will—until something strange happened.

In June 1925, Pink began to suspect that his father’s final wishes may have been misrepresented after the elder Chaffin began appearing to Pink in dreams, with a "sorrowful" expression on his face. As Pink would later tell the court:

"I began to have very vivid dreams that my father appeared to me at my bedside but made no verbal communication. Some time later, I think it was the latter part of June, 1925, he appeared at my bedside again, dressed as I had often seen him dressed in life, wearing a black overcoat which I knew to be his own coat. This time my father's spirit spoke to me, he took hold of his overcoat this way and pulled it back and said, ‘You will find my will in my overcoat pocket,’ and then disappeared."

Pink was adamant that his father’s spirit had made direct communication to insist that his son follow a specific instruction.

After telling his wife about the dreams and the close encounter, Pink traveled 20 miles to his brother John’s home, where their father’s overcoat was stored in the attic. Spreading it open, he noticed that the inside pocket lining had been sewn shut. Ripping it open, he discovered a rolled-up paper tied by string. “Read the 27th Chapter of Genesis in my daddie’s old Bible,” it instructed.

At that point, Pink had the presence of mind to understand that whatever happened with the Bible might benefit from the testimony of another eyewitness, which is why he rounded up Blackwelder on that fateful July day. With witnesses in tow, Chaffin departed for the home of his mother, who allowed her son and his friend to search her house for the book. When they finally discovered it in a bureau drawer, it was so old and weathered that the binding had split into three pieces. Turning to Genesis 27, Blackwelder discovered two pages folded together to form a makeshift pocket.

When he peered inside, Blackwelder discovered the elder Chaffin’s last will and testament, dated January 16, 1919. This hidden document allowed for a fair and even split between Pink and his brothers. It read:

"After reading the 27th chapter of Genesis, I, James L. Chaffin, do make my last will and testament, and here it is. I want, after giving my body a decent burial, my little property to be equally divided between my four children, if they are living at my death, both personal and real estate divided equal if not living, give share to their children. And if she is living, you all must take care of your mammy. Now this is my last will and testament. Witness my hand and seal."

— James L. Chaffin

Pink was elated. The document seemed to correct all the wrongs of the previous will, which had made provisions for only Marshall, who inherited all 102 acres of their father's land, while the rest of the family was left out entirely. Later, in court, Pink insisted that it was the ghost of his father who told him exactly where to find the document—with Blackwelder corroborating the fantastic tale.

In the fall of 1925, the will of James L. Chaffin was tendered for probate. A court would have to decide whether the newly-discovered will was valid.

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Davie County Superior Court had never seen the likes of a probate case that had been spurred on by a ghost. Newspapers swarmed the courthouse and interviewed Pink, eager to hear details about how his father’s spirit had led him to the discovery of a second will.

Although he was willing to share stories of the visitations, Pink realized that pragmatism would win the day in court. He and his lawyers assembled 10 former friends and associates of Chaffin’s, who could attest to the fact that the signature on the second will was legitimate. A jury wouldn’t necessarily need to believe in the afterlife if they took these witnesses at their word. But they wouldn’t even get that chance.

During a court recess, lawyers for both the Chaffin brothers and Susie agreed to a settlement. It’s likely Susie was advised that her chances of arguing against the validity of the second will were slim and that a jury ruling could leave her with nothing. (Even Susie agreed that the signature on the second will was legitimate.) Instead, she would accept one-quarter of the estate, leaving the rest to be divided equally among the brothers.

A judge made it official. The second will superseded the first.

The presence of Chaffin’s ghost in articles about the case led to attention from a number of outlets that had little or nothing to do with the judicial system. The following year, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) dispatched a lawyer to interview the Chaffins to try and discern their sincerity. He found no evidence they—nor Blackwelder—were being deceptive.

The SPR, though eager to find evidence of phenomena, rebutted the lawyer's findings and speculated that it made little sense for Chaffin’s ghost to send his son on a scavenger hunt. Why not just tell him to look in the Bible in the first place?

A ghost’s eccentricities or communication limitations aside, there was also the matter of whether the brothers, feeling jilted by the wishes of the first will, decided to concoct a sensational story and forge a second, more generous agreement to be “found” at a later date. Some amateur sleuths speculated that Pink waited years before contesting the will because one of the brothers would need time to practice their father’s handwriting in order to pass an acceptable forgery.

In 2004, author Mary Roach was investigating paranormal activity for her nonfiction book Spook when she commissioned handwriting expert Grant Sperry to examine both the 1905 and 1919 wills. The first one was hand-drafted by another party but signed by Chaffin; the second appeared to be by his hand alone. Sperry offered that the signature in the 1905 will seemed rougher and less polished than the one drafted 14 years later—and usually, handwriting worsens over time. Sperry concluded that if the first signature was valid, then the second signature was a fake.

On the other hand, the writing in the second will was fluid, not halting like so many forgeries tend to be in their slow pursuit of perfection. If it had been written by someone other than Chaffin, perhaps it was done only to motivate Susie to share the wealth and with no expectation it would be exhaustively studied by a forensic specialist.

If the Chaffin brothers knew a revised, legitimate will was in the family’s possession, there’s no reason to have waited four years to reveal it. It's possible they felt a story was needed to help explain how well-hidden it had supposedly been, and perhaps they felt a ghost tale was less preposterous than claiming to happen upon it at random.

It’s certainly more likely that Pink orchestrated the discovery of a will more satisfactory to the family than the idea that Chaffin would revise his own, then never tell anyone about it. But Pink never even hinted at the possibility that his story was anything other than the truth.

“I was fully convinced,” he said in his statement, “that my father’s spirit had visited me for the purpose of explaining some mistake.” Having had his message received, Pink said he was never contacted by his father again.

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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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