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Airing Tonight: "The Colony" on Discovery

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Set your DVRs: tonight (July 27) on the Discovery Channel, The Colony airs at 10pm. Read on for a first look!

What separates good reality TV from bad reality TV? For me, good reality TV raises questions -- most importantly, what would you do if you were the person living in the "reality" of the show? In bad reality TV, nobody cares -- it's pure entertainment, watching people goof around and make fools of themselves. But in good reality TV, like Discovery's The Colony, we are repeatedly confronted with questions, and every viewer's answer will be different. This is reality TV worth watching, because it presents real issues -- in this cases, issues of survival -- albeit through the lens of a reality TV show (meaning, there's a camera crew and producers around, in case some dude cuts his hand off). In The Colony, there is no prize at the end, there is no way to "win," and nobody gets voted off the island -- this is just a group of seven people trying to survive for 50 days entirely off the grid.

The Colony starts its second season tonight. I was a fan of the first season, and the second looks like a solid extension of the "experiment." In this season, a group of volunteer "colonists" are contained within a 10-acre neighborhood of abandoned, Katrina-ravaged Louisiana. They're placed in a survival scenario in which a global pandemic has infected and killed most people, and the virus is still loose; these colonists must survive given what they find in their enclosed environment, and they're often invaded by potentially-infected marauders (who are, by the way, armed with real smoke grenades and pepper spray, which they use on the colonists when provoked). The colonists must figure out how to establish viable shelter (the abandoned buildings are in terrible shape), start and maintain fires, purify water from a nearby canal, find food (some MREs are provided to start them off), and establish security. It's a lot of work.

Amazingly, on their very first day (after a 72-hour individual isolation period in quarantine...), the colonists do a pretty good job of dealing with shelter, fire, food, and water. Security is another matter -- you'll have to tune in to see how that works out.

After the jump: video clips and a bit more on The Colony.

This season, we again have a mixed bag of volunteers, with the oldest being 70-year-old DeVille, a retired contractor, and the youngest is 22-year-old Becka, a model with a Bachelors degree in Communications. There are vast differences in skills among the colonists (one is a mechanic, another a carpenter, one is a professor, and so on), and part of the fun of the first series was watching these people perform their professions so well. It's genuinely interesting to see them set up a water filtration system using sand, charcoal, and a couple of buckets. It's downright exciting to see them scavenge lightbulbs and batteries from abandoned cars and rig up lighting systems. In the first season, the colonists eventually put together solar panels, charging a large array of car batteries, which provided adequate electricity for lights, power tools, and even a TV set (though in the world of the colony, there's nothing on). Watching this, I'm forced to confront the reality that most of my skills involve typing. In a world without reliable power, computers go out the window. I'd be useful only for manual labor and maybe some light farming.

It'll be interesting to see how this new group gets along. It's clear from the first episode that a rift is developing between George (whose profession is listed as "Model Maker" with a Masters in Film from UCLA) and some of the tougher, rootsier dudes; George is about foraging and tinkering, while the others are just straight-up badasses. (At one point, colonist Reno criticizes George for riding a bike -- clearly a wimpy thing to do when traveling four blocks in the blazing Louisiana sun.) When the colony is attacked in the first episode, George gets pepper spray in his eyes and suffers some injuries from a tough fall -- he's no wimp, and I suspect he'll demonstrate some electronics or other technical skills that will help the colony down the line.

Here's a preview of the first season -- most of the clips are from the first episode.

And here's a brief clip from the first episode, in which the first outsiders come looking for food and water. Things go downhill after this encounter.

The Colony season 2 premieres tonight (July 27) on the Discovery Channel, The Colony at 10pm. It's worth a look for fans of more "real" reality TV -- while it is very much staged (these colonists are not alone, they're just portrayed that way), it's a very different take on reality TV; the lack of monetary rewards or competition makes it a show about cooperation, survival, and group dynamics -- all pretty brainy topics for "just" a reality TV show.

Blogger disclosure: I received no compensation, gifts, or other encouragement or rewards for this review; just saw the first episode and liked it.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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]