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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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technology
Google's AI Can Make Its Own AI Now
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Artificial intelligence is advanced enough to do some pretty complicated things: read lips, mimic sounds, analyze photographs of food, and even design beer. Unfortunately, even people who have plenty of coding knowledge might not know how to create the kind of algorithm that can perform these tasks. Google wants to bring the ability to harness artificial intelligence to more people, though, and according to WIRED, it's doing that by teaching machine-learning software to make more machine-learning software.

The project is called AutoML, and it's designed to come up with better machine-learning software than humans can. As algorithms become more important in scientific research, healthcare, and other fields outside the direct scope of robotics and math, the number of people who could benefit from using AI has outstripped the number of people who actually know how to set up a useful machine-learning program. Though computers can do a lot, according to Google, human experts are still needed to do things like preprocess the data, set parameters, and analyze the results. These are tasks that even developers may not have experience in.

The idea behind AutoML is that people who aren't hyper-specialists in the machine-learning field will be able to use AutoML to create their own machine-learning algorithms, without having to do as much legwork. It can also limit the amount of menial labor developers have to do, since the software can do the work of training the resulting neural networks, which often involves a lot of trial and error, as WIRED writes.

Aside from giving robots the ability to turn around and make new robots—somewhere, a novelist is plotting out a dystopian sci-fi story around that idea—it could make machine learning more accessible for people who don't work at Google, too. Companies and academic researchers are already trying to deploy AI to calculate calories based on food photos, find the best way to teach kids, and identify health risks in medical patients. Making it easier to create sophisticated machine-learning programs could lead to even more uses.

[h/t WIRED]

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History
Who Betrayed Anne Frank? A New Investigation Reopens the Case
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TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

The tale of Anne Frank’s years spent hiding with her family in the secret annex above her father’s warehouse is known around the world. Yet despite years of research by Otto Frank (Anne's father and the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust) and scholars, we still don’t know exactly what circumstances led to Anne and her family’s discovery. A new investigation is reopening the cold case in the hopes of finally finding out the truth, The Guardian reports.

The long-accepted theory of the Franks’ discovery and subsequent arrest is that an anonymous tip to the Sicherheitsdienst, the Nazi intelligence agency, gave their hiding place away. The 30 potential suspects identified over the years have included a warehouse worker, a housekeeper, and a man possibly blackmailing Otto Frank. In December 2016, researchers at the Anne Frank House floated a new theory: The discovery was incidental, the result of a police raid looking for proof of ration fraud at Otto Frank’s factory, in which police just happened to uncover two Jewish families living in secret. However, none of these theories has been proven definitively.

Now, a team of investigators led by a former FBI agent is taking on the cold case, reviewing the archives of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, examining newly declassified material in the U.S. National Archives, and using data analysis to find a conclusive answer to the decades-old mystery.

“This investigation is different from all previous attempts to find the truth,” according to the Cold Case Diary website. “It will be conducted using modern law enforcement investigative techniques. The research team is multidisciplinary, using methods of cold case detectives, historians, but also psychologists, profilers, data analysts, forensic scientists and criminologists.” Thijs Bayens and Pieter Van Twisk, a Dutch filmmaker and journalist, respectively, came up with the idea for the project, and recruited the lead investigator, retired FBI agent Vince Pankoke. Pankoke has previously worked on cases involving Colombian drug cartels.

The new Anne Frank case will focus on investigative techniques that have only become available in the last decade, like big data analysis. Already, the investigators have uncovered new information, such as a German list of informants and the names of Jews that had been arrested and betrayed in Amsterdam during the war, found in the U.S. National Archives.

The investigators hope to provide answers in time for the 75th anniversary of the Frank family’s arrest in August 2019.

[h/t The Guardian]

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