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5 Things You Didn't Know About COPS

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Bad boys, bad boys"¦whatcha gonna do? If the ratings can be taken as an indicator, TV viewers love to see drunken trailer park residents beat up on their relatives. This week our TVHolic looks at that weekly guilty pleasure, COPS.

1. It all started with a Documentary

Picture 421.pngPicture 38.pngCOPS is the brainchild of writer/producer John Langley. In 1983 Langley was working with Malcolm Barbour on a documentary called Cocaine Blues, which was a graphic depiction of the effect of the so-called upscale drug on the average American. While researching Cocaine Blues Langley was on the scene during several drug raids, and it occurred to him that the logistics, preparation and execution of such police work from the cop's point of view might make for an interesting television series.

2. Geraldo was an Influence (sort of)

Langley worked with Geraldo Rivera on a two-hour special entitled American Vice, which again focused on the War on Drugs and followed various law enforcement agencies on the job. Equipped with not only a concept but also a working knowledge of what would be involved (a physically fit camera crew that could keep up with police officers while carrying unwieldy equipment), he began pitching his new show idea to the networks. He was met with every reaction from disdain to outright incredulity. You can't have a TV show without at the very least a narrator, he was informed. No one will agree to appear on-camera, we'll get our (posteriors) sued from here "˜til doomsday, said several execs. It was all a matter of timing when Langley finally hit pay dirt in 1989. The Fox Network was in its infancy and was looking for unusual, "edgy" programming in order to set itself apart from the Big Three networks. Langley had done his homework and had figured out the necessary technology "“ the action could be filmed live using microwave technology and bouncing signals up to helicopters and back down to trucks. Fox was impressed by his pitch and ordered 45 episodes.

3. Will your city get picked?

Picture 411.pngThe COPS crew doesn't just show up at a random police precinct; they only film on location when they're invited by either a city's mayor, police chief or other official. Upon receiving such an invite, the producers of the show meet with the local law enforcement officials and then ride on patrol for several different shifts to see if the area meets the "production needs" of the show. (Translation: there must be some sort of criminal action worth filming. There have been several occasions when the crew spent three or four days riding with the local constables only to find that the biggest crimes in town were parking infractions.) Once an area is deemed suitable for filming, all the proper contracts are signed, and a two-man COPS crew rides in each police car. In one-person cars, the camera operator rides shotgun while the sound mixer sits in the back seat. In two-officer cars, both crew members sit in the back. They both wear ballistic resistant vests while on the job. Surprisingly, the only major injuries suffered by COPS crew members in 20 years of filming have been slipping and falling while running through back yards in the dark, and being hit by flying objects when filming an angry crowd.

4. Why There are Fewer Blurry Faces

Picture 40.pngIn the early days of the series, many of the perp's faces were blurred. Folks were unfamiliar with the show and were wary of appearing on camera. However, once COPS became a hit, over 90% of the arrestees signed release forms. Even though their initial reaction might have been "Get those cameras out of my face," once they found out that the footage was for COPS, they willingly agreed to be on TV. Producer Langley shrugs and figures it must have something to do with that "15 minutes of fame" thing. Interestingly enough, "blurring" is time consuming and expensive in post-production, so in later seasons of the show, a lot of perps who refuse to sign the waiver never get on camera.

5. When the Crew Gets Involved

Picture 39.pngOnce in a great while, members of the COPS crew break that fourth wall and get involved with the situation at hand. In one episode a victim was unconscious and not breathing, and paramedics hadn't yet arrived. The COPS sound mixer happened to be a former EMT and he assisted the attending police officer in providing CPR. On another occasion, the police officer that had been in foot pursuit of a suspect was injured, and the camera operator (who was a Las Vegas Reserve Police Officer) handed off his equipment to the sound mixer and assisted the officer in tackling the suspect.

I'd love to hear about your favorite COPS memories or moments. I'll wait a moment while you don your wife-beater undershirt and light up a Lucky Strike.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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.