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4 Scary Toys in Big Brother's Toolbox

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BY MEGHAN HOLOHAN. It seems like government agencies are ready to party like it's 1984. In its zeal to prevent another terrorism attack, the U.S. has relaxed laws that protect our privacy, making it easier for the government to keep an eye on you. The following four products could help Big Brother keep watch.

1. Wristy Business: Monitors for Airline Passengers

A senior official at the U.S. Department of Homeland security supposedly has his eye on a new accessory—an EDM security bracelet made by Lamperd Less Lethal, Inc. The scary notion is that this bling will be mandatory for airline travelers to wear on their wrists (at least according to this agency letter on the Lamperd web site). A microchip in the bracelet would contain the passenger's personal information, including: departure and destination locations and times, boarding passes, social security number, name, address, and phone numbers. More importantly, the GPS unit in it helps the government know where passengers are during their entire journey. The strangest part is that the bracelets are also equipped to restrain passengers: in the case of a hijacking, the flight staff can actually activate the bracelet to shock passengers much like a Taser. The friendly DOH is reassuring the press that law abiding citizens need not worry—personal data is only stored in the jewelry during flight and only airline staff will be able to stun wearers.

2. Cell Phone Tracking (aka That thing Morgan Freeman Refused to Do)

Picture 103.pngRemember that thing Morgan Freeman almost quit his job over in The Dark Knight? Well, it's already happening. Albert Lazlo Barabasi has been using cell phones to track people, so that he could better understand human social habits. For a year, the Northeastern University physics professor and his colleagues' monitored 100,000 people in a country outside of the United States, described only as "a large industrialized nation."

The exciting news from this study? That most people stay within 20 miles of their homes. More evidence that we aren't as spontaneous as we like to think. Ethicists balked at the research because tracking people through an item like a cell phone clearly violates U.S. citizens' ideas of privacy. Barabasi says his research included several layers of anonymity so researchers had little idea who they were watching. He claims the upswing of this technology is that transportation could be changed to meet the real needs of people and that it might help doctor's track contagious disease or bioterrorism outbreaks in the future. The downfalls are obvious: the tracked citizens of this industrialized country have no idea they were being watched. Worse still, Big Brother now knows he can track large groups of people for at least a year without anyone being suspicious.

3. Electronic Leashes for Dogs (and why they're coming to humans)

Rocco the beagle's 10-year old owner was delighted when her beloved pet was brought back home. The furry scoundrel had escaped from the backyard, and his return was due mainly to a microchip implanted in his neck. Most pet microchips use RFID and GPS technology, and are smaller than a grain of rice. They also contain huge amounts of data on them that can be accessed by scanner (i.e. where Rocco lived, his owner's phone number, and if his shots were updated when the chip was installed).

This technology won't just be limited to pets though. Applied Digital Systems has applied for and earned the first patent for human RFID chips, called VeriChips. The company says the VeriChips contain a person's complete medical record and will save lives. For example, if someone's allergic to penicillin, a doctor will just scan the person, access that information immediately and prevent a medical error. Genius. Because many of these RFID chips come with GPS capability, you too will be traceable just like Rocco. ADS reps say it has no plans to track people—unless they're lost and families are desperately searching for their loved ones.

Amazingly, the technology is being used to track other things as as well. Food manufactures already use RFID in products, allowing grocery stores to track consumer-purchasing habits, reduce theft, and keep accurate inventory. They claim that as soon as consumers check out, the RFID becomes inactive, but many worry that the companies are tracking where their products go. In the future, expect RFID in clothes—to reduce theft, of course.

4. Online tracking: making the Internet a giant mouse trap

Internet Service Providers have been searching for ways to make extra revenue, and they haven't always been ethical about it. Embarq, a Fortune 500 telecom company, sold its users' personal information to other businesses. The company tested out technology created by NebuAd, without informing its subscribers. Unfortunately the plan wasn't foolproof and the U.S. House of Representatives has been investigating whether this is a privacy violation.

NebuAd works in the ISP, recording every click, creating a consumer profile so that it can send users targeted ads. DoubleClick does the same thing, but only from select web pages. Because NebuAd works within the ISP framework it lurks in the system and sees everywhere you click your mouse. For it to work, ISPs install a sniffer box, which catalogs user behavior as it monitors communication between the user's computer and web sites. Free Press and Public Knowledge contend that NebuAd also includes fake information at the end of a Yahoo or Google search that directs users to a NebuAd website that inserts cookies on your browser. The process supposedly improves the nefarious company's ability to monitor everything you search on the web. NebuAd reps argue that the information they collect is anonymous and web users can opt out at any time. Unfortunately most users don't know if their ISP is using NebuAd.

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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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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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