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The (TV) Taxman Cometh

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A few weeks ago, my husband got us a digital cable box, despite the fact that we don't have a television.

The reasoning behind the cable box is that should we ever decide to get a television, using it would somehow be free, with our cable plan. But one of the reasons we don't have a television has to with the fact that watching broadcast television, like many other things in this fair country, comes with a yearly tax; in 2008 to 2009, that tax was around £140. Not a ton of money, but more than I, an American who assumes that television should be free, want to pay.

Now, we'd heard about this TV tax well before we even moved here. But I'll be honest, I didn't really know exactly what it was or how it was collected.

It's simply a tax on any device, including laptops and mobile phones, that is used to receive a television program at the same time its being watched or broadcast to other members of the public. It's set annually by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sports, the BBC has the right to collect the tax, and the money goes to pay for their broadcasts. All well and good "“ the BBC does some great programming and while they make most things available on iPlayer, their web-based radio and television streaming program, it's not all there.

But the question is, how do they determine whether there is a television on the premises, and that it's being used for watching broadcast TV, not just DVDs and video games?

The answer: They have surveillance vans.

TV-licensingFor decades, TV-tax dodgers have been foiled by the TV licensing patrols "“ essentially, vans with large antennae atop them sniffing out TV signals. And if they, the licensing patrols, determine that someone is using a television unlawfully, they can levy a fine of up to £1,000. The first such vans hit the streets in 1926, trying to catch radio listeners who were dodging the obligatory 10-shilling license fee. The invention of TV brought a new generation of vans, but it's only been in the last 17 years or so that the vans have really been effective, able to not only determine if there's a television receiver in use, but to cross reference the information with an on-board database of TV license holders as well. In 2007, the TV licensing department unveiled a new weapon in the fight against TV-tax dodgers: A handheld device that can detect if a television is on within a radius of 29 feet.

The larger triumph of the vans, however, isn't so much in catching dodgers outright, but in the fear they're able to conjure. Even televised public service announcements warning potential TV-tax dodgers were designed to strike a note of paranoia in TV viewers:

In this one, from 1970, a TV license patrolman says, "Yes, there's a TV set on at No 5. It's in the front room "“ and they are watching Columbo." It is no surprise that George Orwell was British.

Despite the fact that the TV tax is ingrained in British media culture, there have been some rumors of revolt lately "“ in the last few years, polls have shown that people would like to see the BBC funded in some other way, or to do away with the tax all together. At the same time, watching television programs on the internet, specifically those that have already been broadcast to the TV viewing audience, is a bit of what media watchdog group OfCom considers a TV-tax grey area and one that, as people continue to rely on the internet and digital cable recording for TV, will need to be figured out.

As of now, we haven't decided what to do with the digital cable box, which remains in its box, unopened, in our spare room. And though the BBC does air some great shows, programs like Clever v. Stupid and Strictly Come Dancing are making me wonder "“ what exactly are 25 million Brits paying for?

[Image courtesy of TV Licensing.]

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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