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Mac Tips: Backup (Part 1)

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As a long-time Mac geek, I'm often called upon to help friends and family with Mac issues. In this new feature, I'll post a few of the most crucial tips so our Mac-using readers can benefit. This week's tip is also applicable to the Windows platform -- but future tips may not be!

Today's topic is backup. Anyone who has experienced a hard drive crash, had a computer stolen, or lost a computer in a disaster can tell you how important it is to have a copy of your precious data. Imagine losing all your data -- all your music, work files, email, everything. It's a terrible thing to contemplate! With a backup, you can restore critical files and get back to work. I think we all know that backup is important, but avoid dealing with it because it takes time and money to set up...right? Actually, it can be easy -- and free. In this article I'll introduce Mozy, an online backup service (for Windows users too) which offers free 2 GB personal backup service, in the hopes you'll upgrade to a pay-per-use plan (with unlimited space and extra features). I have no affiliation with Mozy, aside from being a satisfied user of their MozyHome Free service.

After the jump: specifics on Mozy and a free signup link!

Mozy is a "set it and forget it" backup solution, which is the only practical way for home users to backup. Other solutions that require you to actually do something to run the backup cause users to put it off, which leads to a stale backup when something bad actually happens. To get around this, Mozy runs in the background, automatically performing backups over the internet to a secure server when it detects that you've been idle for a period of time (you can set this period, or leave it at the default). If Mozy needs your attention (for example, if it hasn't been able to reach the server to backup for more than seven days) it'll pop up a warning message. But otherwise it just quietly does its thing. (Note: you may want to increase the amount of time your computer stays awake before sleep, in order to give Mozy more time to run backups.)

If you're going to use Mozy's free service, you'll need to limit the items you backup to fit in its 2 GB space. For me, Mozy's 2 GB space allows storage of all my email, all Word/Excel/PowerPoint documents, everything I've purchased from iTunes, and a set of key document folders (all my daily work and projects) -- with space to spare. Because of the limited space, Mozy's free service is only a partial solution. Should you experience a catastrophic computer failure -- you'll be able to recover your most crucial data, but will still have to restore all sorts of other stuff (MP3s, applications, and so on) by hand. We'll talk about some complementary "full backup" solutions next week. But keep in mind a key strength of Mozy's free service is that it runs backups to an offsite server -- this allows you to retrieve your data in the event that your house burns down.

Mozy is still in Beta on the Mac platform, which means it will need occasional updates, and may need extra care and feeding at times. But in my use (and my friends' use) over the past six months, it has been very stable and reliable -- and it appears to be fast approaching a final non-Beta release. I've done some test restores to make sure my data is retrievable, and it has worked like a charm. If you need to restore a lot of data and don't want to download your restores over the internet, you can pay a nominal fee for Mozy to burn a disc and mail it to you.

If you've read this far, you're ready to start using Mozy. If you use this Mozy link I'll get a kickback of some extra free storage on my account. IMPORTANT NOTE: be sure to sign up for the free service! Click the orange "Home Users" button in the upper right, then the orange "MozyHome Free" button in the lower left. The free service doesn't require a credit card or any other commitment. (Well, aside from you trusting Mozy with your data!) If you want to sign up for their paid service, it's $4.95/month for personal use with no storage restrictions.

If you want to know more about Mozy, check out Mozy's News section, which includes positive reviews by Consumer Reports, The Wall Street Journal, and Ars Technica (among others). Stay tuned for an article next week on full-system backup that works as a complement to Mozy. Also, if you want to scare the non-backer-uppers, share your tales of data loss in the comments.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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