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BBS: The Documentary

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Before this whole Internet/Web fad, before AOL, before CompuServe, before even Prodigy, we had the BBS -- dialup Bulletin Board Systems serving communities of computer users. BBSed had their heyday in the Eighties, and they were generally small, homebrew systems -- a Sysop (System Operator) would start up a BBS by installing special software on a spare computer, attaching a modem and a phone line, and waiting for the calls to roll in. The BBS was primarily a local thing, because generally people didn't want to spend money to dial long-distance. So what you had in the Eighties (and still very much into the Nineties, and a bit still today) was a broad patchwork of regional online communities. This local aspect of the system was largely lost when everyone moved to the Internet, and it's only present in niche sites like Craigslist and various City Guide sites.

As a teenager, I was hugely addicted to BBSes, and even had a special phone line put in (thanks, parents!) so I could dial up my local 'boards' to exchange messages, play online games, and chat (that last option was only available if the BBS's Sysop was rich enough to have multiple phone lines running -- or if you were chatting with the Sysop him or herself!). I often met new computer geek friends online, then found out they went to my middle school. And this was in the Eighties!

I keep running into former BBS users who remember the "good old days," (when busy signals were a regular feature of "checking your email") and thought I'd blog about the topic. The other day I was buying paper at the local paper warehouse and the cashier and I somehow got into a conversation about BBSes. I'm telling you, we're everywhere, hiding in plain view. So I'm wondering -- are any flossers former BBS users? Do you remember the days of downloading files in tiny segments, configuring your dialup client to work with the latest and greatest download protocol, and trying to figure out how to use Fidonet to send email (then "e-mail") cross-country? (Bonus points: remember when your friends got 2400 baud modems before you did, and lorded it over you for months? And when it happened again with 9600 and 14.4k modems?)

Much more, including a 10-minute clip of The BBS Documentary, after the jump!

Whether you're an old-school BBS user or just interested in computer history, there's one film that's required viewing: The BBS Documentary. Spanning three DVDs, this five-hour film chronicles various aspects of the BBS scene through interviews with those who wrote early BBS software, ran major BBSes, even those who created the ASCII/ANSI art that was a staple of the BBS scene. As Wired Magazine said, it's "surprisingly engrossing." I bought the DVD set when it first came out in 2005, and have recently started watching it again -- and I'm reminded how much history is revealed by the film. This is history that's been happening in garages, basements, and spare bedrooms across the world for the past thirty years -- and you'd hardly know it if you didn't see a film like this.

If you're ready to experience the whole film, order The BBS Documentary now! If you're not up for paying for it yet, you can watch several hours of it online at Google Video, or watch this clips compilation from YouTube:

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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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