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The Open Letter-Off of '07

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Over the past few weeks, the web has been buzzing with competing open letters about Digital Rights Management, all starting from a post on February 6 by Steve Jobs. We break down the dialog after the jump, in excruciating detail....

It started on February 6, when Steve Jobs posted his Thoughts on Music, an open letter on the Apple web site. Jobs wrote about Apple's FairPlay DRM (Digital Rights Management) system, which is used to prevent copying music sold by the iTunes Store. The point of the letter is that Jobs believes DRM limits consumer choice, and is ultimately ineffective -- he points out that the vast majority of music sold today is on CD's, which contain no DRM. A central point of the letter is that Jobs believes Apple's FairPlay DRM system cannot be opened up to other companies, as it would inevitably be cracked by someone, and music companies have contractually obligated Apple to repair any such problems within a fixed period of time -- something that would become impractical in a landscape where many companies implemented their own versions of FairPlay. Jobs appears to have written the letter in an effort to deflect European legal pressures on iTunes, trying to shift the focus onto music companies, since they're the ones who demand DRM be used to protect music sold online.

Later that day, Jon Johanson (aka "DVD Jon," a cracker who broke DVD encryption some years back) responded with a blog post disputing Jobs' statistics and an open letter to Jobs suggesting that iTunes could implement a system for selling DRM-free music within "2-3 days."

On February 7, Mitch Bainwol of the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) appeared to miss the point, encouraging Apple to open its FairPlay technology to competing companies. This despite the fact that Jobs had already explicitly rejected this possibility in the original open letter, along with a fairly lengthy explanation of why it wouldn't work.

Later on February 7, The Economist weighed in, with an unsigned editorial (read: open letter) on the issue. On the whole they agree with Jobs, though the editorial details how Jobs has changed his tune on DRM over the years. Norway's Consumer Council also got in on the action, suggesting that Jobs was simply trying to divert European legal attention to the music companies and away from Apple (their suggestion was that if he believes DRM is a problem, he should simply solve it, rather than calling for consumers to petition the music industry).

On February 9, Warner Music executive Edgar Bronfman suggested that Jobs' proposal was without logic and merit. Bronfman didn't post his own open letter, he just gave a brief statement to BBC News. On the same day, Michael Robertson, founder of MP3.com, posted an open letter, suggesting that Jobs put his money where his mouth is and start selling DRM-free music, as well as opening up the iPod's technology to competitors.

On February 10, MPEG Chairman Leonardo Chiariglione posted an open letter responding to Jobs, pointing out some flaws in the original open letter and suggesting methods by which DRM could be standardized and adopted worldwide.

On February 12, Yahoo Music head Dave Goldberg came out against DRM, essentially agreeing with Jobs (though it's unclear whether Goldberg's comments were originally made in response to Jobs' open letter).

On February 18, Macrovision CEO Fred Amoroso wrote his own open letter, in which he (among other things) offered to take Apple's FairPlay DRM system and incorporate it into the Macrovision stable of products. Again, this appears to miss Jobs' original statement that this was not going to happen. Are these guys even reading each others' open letters? (Read a non-marketing-ese translation of Amoroso's letter.)

The torrent of open letters (and analysis of the open letters) continues -- if anything significant happens, we'll be sure to write an open letter about it.

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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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