Podcast Episode 142: Fingerprints and Polygraphs

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Fingerprint identification and lie detectors are well-known tools of law enforcement today, but both were quite revolutionary when they were introduced. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the memorable cases where these innovations were first used.

We’ll also see some phantom ships and puzzle over a beer company’s second thoughts.

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Podcast Episode 139: The Painter’s Revenge

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

When critics dismissed his paintings, Dutch artist Han van Meegeren decided to seek his revenge on the art world: He devoted himself to forgery and spent six years fabricating a Vermeer masterpiece. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll recount the career of a master forger and the surprising mistake that eventually brought him down.

We’ll also drop in on D.B. Cooper and puzzle over an eyeless fruit burglar.

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New Light

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Our legal system assumes that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But what constitutes a reasonable doubt? Law professors Ariel Porat and Alon Harel suggest that an “aggregate probabilities principle” might help to determine whether an accused party is innocent or guilty.

Suppose we’ve decided that the evidence must indicate a probability of 95 percent guilt before we’re willing to declare a defendant guilty. Mr. Smith is accused of two separate crimes, with a 90 percent probability of guilt in each case. Under the 95 percent rule he’d be acquitted of both crimes. But Porat and Harel point out that there’s a 10 percent chance that Smith is innocent of each crime, and aggregating the probabilities gives a 0.10 × 0.10 = 0.01 chance that Smith is innocent of both — that is, there’s a 99 percent chance that he’s guilty of at least one of the offenses.

On the other hand, consider Miller, who is also accused of two different crimes. Suppose that the evidence gives a 95 percent probability that he committed each crime. Normally he’d be convicted of both offenses, but aggregating the probabilities gives a 0.95 × 0.95 = 0.9025 chance that he’s guilty of both offenses, and hence he’d be acquitted of one.

In A Mathematical Medley (2010), mathematician George Szpiro points out that this practice can produce some paradoxical outcomes. Peter and Paul are each accused of a crime, each with a 90 percent chance of being guilty. Normally both would be acquitted. But suppose that each was accused of a similar crime in the past, Peter with a 90 percent chance of guilt and Paul with a 95 percent chance. Accordingly Peter was acquitted and Paul went to prison. But historically Peter has now been accused of two crimes, with a 90 percent chance of guilt in each case; according to the reasoning above he ought to be convicted of one of the two crimes and hence ought to go to jail today. Paul has also been accused of two crimes, with a 0.95 × 0.90 = 0.855 chance that he’s guilty of both. He’s already served one prison term, so the judge ought to acquit him today.

Szpiro writes, “Thus we have the following scenario: in spite of the evidence being identical, the previously convicted Peter is acquitted, while Paul, with a clean record, is incarcerated.”

(Ariel Porat and Alon Harel, “Aggregating Probabilities Across Offences in Criminal Law,” Public Law Working Paper #204, University of Chicago, 2008; George Szpiro, A Mathematical Medley, 2010.)

Podcast Episode 132: The Mad Gasser of Mattoon

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1944, a bizarre criminal assaulted the small town of Mattoon, Illinois. Victims reported smelling a sickly sweet odor in their bedrooms before being overcome with nausea and a feeling of paralysis. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll pursue the mad gasser of Mattoon, who vanished as quickly as he had struck, leaving residents to wonder whether he had ever existed at all.

We’ll also ponder the concept of identical cousins and puzzle over a midnight stabbing.

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Podcast Episode 125: The Campden Wonder

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

When William Harrison disappeared from Campden, England, in 1660, his servant offered an incredible explanation: that he and his family had murdered him. The events that followed only proved the situation to be even more bizarre. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe “the Campden wonder,” an enigma that has eluded explanation for more than 300 years.

We’ll also consider Vladimir Putin’s dog and puzzle over a little girl’s benefactor.

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Podcast Episode 124: D.B. Cooper

https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/stories/2007/december/dbcooper_123107

In 1971 a mysterious man hijacked an airliner in Portland, Oregon, demanding $200,000 and four parachutes. He bailed out somewhere over southwestern Washington and has never been seen again. In today’s show we’ll tell the story of D.B. Cooper, the only unsolved hijacking in American history.

We’ll also hear some musical disk drives and puzzle over a bicyclist’s narrow escape.

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Rotary Jails

https://patents.google.com/patent/US244358A/en

Architect William H. Brown had a curious brainstorm in 1881 — a jail in which moving cells shared a single door:

The object of our invention is to produce a jail or prison in which prisoners can be controlled without the necessity of personal contact between them and the jailer or guard. … [It] consists, first, of a circular cell structure of considerable size (inside the usual prison-building) divided into several cells capable of being rotated, and surrounded by a grating in close proximity thereto, which has only such number of openings (usually one) as is necessary for the convenient handling of the prisoners.

The cell block, supported by ball bearings, could be turned by a single man with a hand crank. While it had a certain efficient appeal, in practice the jail proved dangerous, crushing prisoners’ limbs and raising concerns about safety during a fire. The last rotary jail was condemned in 1939; the only surviving example is in Crawfordsville, Indiana.

(Strangely related: Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. Thanks, Jon.)

Podcast Episode 120: The Barnes Mystery

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In 1879 a ghastly crime gripped England: A London maid had dismembered her employer and then assumed her identity for two weeks, wearing her clothes and jewelry and selling her belongings. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the murder of Julia Thomas and its surprising modern postscript.

We’ll also discover the unlikely origins of a Mary Poppins character and puzzle over a penguin in a canoe.

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The Oddfather

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Vincent Gigante, head of the Genovese crime family from 1981 to 2005, feigned mental illness for 30 years in order to throw law enforcement authorities off his trail. Beginning in the 1960s he could regularly be seen shuffling around his Greenwich Village neighborhood in pajamas, a bathrobe, and slippers, mumbling to himself, and quietly playing pinochle at a local club. His lawyers and relatives insisted he had become mentally disabled, with an IQ of 69 to 72.

But informants told the FBI that during this time he was really leading the wealthiest and most powerful crime family in the nation and a dominant force in the New York mob.

At arraignments he appeared in pajamas, and psychiatrists testified that he had been confined 28 times for hallucinations and “dementia rooted in organic brain damage.” “He was probably the most clever organized-crime figure I have ever seen,” former FBI supervisor John S. Pritchard told the New York Times. Mob rival John Gotti called him “crazy like a fox.”

It wasn’t until April 2003, in exchange for a plea deal, that he acknowledged that the whole thing had been a con to delay his racketeering trial. His lawyer said, “I think you get to a point in life — I think everyone does — where you become too old and too sick and too tired to fight.” He died in prison in 2005.

Expecting

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

During a visit to the Colt firearms factory in Connecticut in 1995, English sculptor Cornelia Parker was captivated by the recognizably gun-shaped casts of metal produced early in the manufacturing process. As blank casts they had none of the capacities of working weapons, but “in one further step, a hole drilled, a surface filed, they would technically become firearms.”

Fascinated by this transition, “I asked the foreman if I could possibly have a pair of guns at this early stage in the production, and if he could give them the same finish that they’d get at the end of the process,” she wrote later. “Amazingly, he agreed, and they became Embryo Firearms, conflating the idea of birth and death in the same object.”

Ironically, as she was leaving America, customs officials discovered the casts in her luggage and “an argument ensued that perfectly reflected the questions raised by Parker’s work,” writes Jessica Morgan in Cornelia Parker (2000). “The American Customs department insisted that Embryo Guns were weapons, while the police department, in Parker’s defense, argued that they were harmless metal forms and Parker was released from questioning.”