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How Early Is Too Early for TV Nudity?

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Full frontal nudity on public television "“ before 9 p.m.?

Well, if it's in the name of art, it's fine with the BBC. This summer, BBC 4 will be running a five-part series called Life Class: Today's Nude and will absolutely feature full female and male frontal nudity starting at 6 p.m. The show is an attempt to encourage a return to traditional art study (and it'll no doubt inspire at least a few teenage boys to take an interest in art), and will, in addition to the nude of the night, feature an expert doling out advice. Evidently, nude figure drawing has declined in recent years in Britain, as many students have opted to stay away from classical training in favor of more technical and graphical based art skills.

The naked before 9 p.m. aspect of the show caused a bit of a stir "“ but not nearly as much as you'd think. BBC 4, for example, had no problem deciding to air the program because the nudity was "non-sexualized" and "educational." As most people in America probably know, Britain's rules regarding nudity on television (and in most other media) are a bit more lax than in the States. But what exactly are those rules?

According to the BBC's editorial guidelines, nudity before the "watershed" hour of 9 p.m. at night "“ the time after which programming geared towards adults may be aired "“ must be justified by context. And representations of sex are not allowed, unless there is a serious educational purpose, when broadcast before the watershed. Post-watershed, the program must be able to justify the "frank and realistic portrayal of sex" and the discussion of themes around it.

But What About Profanity? Drug Use? Rock-Climbing?

The BBC's guidelines also dictate how their programs handle: Offensive language (not allowed in preschool programming, and only under special circumstances for children's programming); rock-climbing and other extreme sports (with a disclaimer); alcohol and drug use (don't glamorize it, unless warranted); hypnotism (according to the 1952 Hypnotism Act, hypnotism must be licensed); and exorcism, the occult and the paranormal (entertainment programs about these subjects "should not normally contain advice about health, finance, employment or relationships which could encourage people to make life changing decisions").

Not Anything Goes

fabia.jpgJust because the BBC's guidelines are a bit more lax than say, the FCC's, doesn't mean the Brits aren't OK with everything. After Saturday night's airing of Britain's Got Talent, the ITV show that catapulted 47-year-old church volunteer Susan Boyle and her glorious voice into fame, watchdog group OfCom received 39 calls of complaint about another contestant, a burlesque dancer. Fabia Cerra, a 35-year-old former Disco champion and ex-drug addict whose routine featured her breasts, after she stripped down to a black teddy and red-sequined pasties, was given the go ahead to pass on to the next round of judging.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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