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Is Internet Gambling Legal?

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by Eric Furman

The short answer is no. The long answer is, of course, much more complicated. When it comes to online gambling in the United States, the American legal system has more wild cards than 7-Card Stud. In fact, about 12 million Americans gamble online, and Internet gaming companies make upwards of $10 billion a year.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Federal Wire Act of 1961 prohibits Internet gambling—even though there was no such thing as the Internet back then. But because the statute forbids wagering via wire, the Feds claim it extends to online gambling because the Internet runs through wires.

The purpose of the 1961 law was to clamp down on sports gambling, which was often tied to organized crime.

It didn't cover games of chance such as poker, roulette, or blackjack—the type of games most people play online. But even if you're betting on your favorite sports team, the law tends to penalize the people involved on the business end. If you're not running an online casino, odds are, you won't
be prosecuted.

NFL-linesAmerican authorities can only police online casinos located within the United States, which is why gambling websites operate offshore in places such as Antigua, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Plenty of governments worldwide license Internet gambling, and some sites claim that as much as 80 percent of their business comes from U.S. consumers. So, how does all that U.S. money gets into their hands? In 2006, Congress passed legislation that forbids American banks from making transactions with online gambling houses. In theory, they can only accept bettors' money via cash transfer or Swiss bank account. But in practice, most online casinos blatantly flout the law. Typically, it works like this: The player uses a credit card to put money into an account with the online casino. The charge appears on the player's credit card statement as something like or or another fake company name.

Although online gambling is illegal, you probably remember seeing ads for it on Google. You won't anymore, though. Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo! all paid fines for running ads for online gambling sites.

The fines weren't stiff (Google lost about one-third of a day's revenue), but the companies got the message. Or at least, they got the message that they needed to be sneakier. While you won't see ads for anymore, you may see ads for, a poker-teaching site that links you to, the full-fledged gambling site.

Is Internet gambling illegal? Yes. Is it easy to do? Yes. Should you do it? We can't answer that. All we can say is that you can definitely lose a lot of money playing online poker, and the U.S. Department of Justice isn't known for its leniency.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]