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Weird Moments in TV History: The Max Headroom Broadcast Signal Intrusion Incident

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Not all pirates wear eye patches and talk funny. Some dress up as characters from TV shows, hijack broadcast signals and troll people who are just trying to watch the news.

This is what happened on November 22, 1987. Sports anchor Dan Roan was live on The Nine O'Clock News on WGN in Chicago, narrating video of the day’s football highlights. The picture on the station monitors, as well as any TV tuned to WGN, suddenly began twitching and flickering. Then the clips from the Bears game gave way to static.


From the snow emerged a clear picture of the grinning face of Max Headroom, the titular character of a TV show and pitchman for “New Coke.” More accurately, it was man in a Max Headroom mask, standing in front of a swaying sheet of corrugated metal, awash in the sound of a high, harsh buzz.

The airwave hijacking, known in the television business as broadcast signal intrusion, was stopped quickly when WGN on-site engineers switched the modulation of the studio link to an alternate transmitter and less than 30 seconds later, the Max impostor, having said nothing, having hardly moved, was gone. Viewers were brought back to a visibly flustered Dan Roan saying, “Well, if you're wondering what happened, so am I.”

The weirdness had only begun. About two hours after the first incident, viewers of the local PBS affiliate WTTW were interrupted in the middle of an episode of Doctor Who. In the middle of a scene, the signal pirate made another intrusion. The picture danced for a second and Max was back in front of the twirling metal panel again. The pirate, this time transmitting with audio, launched into a bizarre diatribe. While his words were distorted, viewers clearly made out several bits, including New Coke’s slogan, “Catch the Wave” (while Max holds a Pepsi can); a remark about sports reporter and announcer Chuck Swirsky; “Your love is fading”; humming of the theme song to TV series Clutch Cargo; and as Max held up a glove, “My brother is wearing the other one.”


After the rant, the picture cut to a shot of the pirate's exposed butt being spanked with a flyswatter by an accomplice wearing a dress, as he cries “They're coming to get me!” The transmission then cut to black and returned viewers to Doctor Who with a flash of static.

The second intrusion lased about 90 seconds and WTTW was unable to stop it. Unlike WGN, WTTW had no engineers on location at the transmission tower, which sits at the top of what was then the Sears Tower. By the time technicians could begin to take corrective measures, the incident was over.

The Federal Communications Commission and the FBI quickly unleashed task forces dedicated to finding and arresting the signal pirate. The perpetrator clearly had a knack for electronics and was somewhere in the Windy City, as the pirate transmission was distributed over WGN's satellite link and WTTW's land-based microwave links. He or she also had some serious bankrolling behind them. Investigators concluded that the pirate smothered WTTW’s broadcast by sending a more powerful signal to the antenna atop the Sears Tower, and equipment with sufficient power to do so would have cost around $25,000.

For what few clues they had to his method, the agencies had even less on the pirate’s motives. There are hints of a grudge against WGN-TV: the station’s call letters stand for “World’s Greatest Newspaper,” a reference to the Chicago Tribune, and the pirate referred to both the “greatest world newspaper nerds” and WGN sports reporter Chuck Swirsky during their second transmission.

The choice of a Max Headroom mask alludes to a broader point. The Headroom TV show was set in a dystopian future where evil media corporations controlled the world and people spread messages of freedom by hijacking live television feeds with pirate signals. The pirate’s prank might have then been a comment on the media in general.

After exhaustive investigations, the agency task forces closed up shop without making any major headway into figuring out the who, how or why of the incidents. In the 22 years since then, broadcast intrusions have been used in the USSR, China and Lebanon as tools of protest and propaganda, while American intruders have turned their attention from broadcast signals to cable television systems. Pranksters in a few states have taken a page from Tyler Durden’s playbook and slipped footage of hardcore pornography into cable programming. The Max Headroom-impersonator, meanwhile, remains at large.

Here’s the WGN intrusion, pieced together with footage from a newscast the following day:

And the WTTW intrusion as seen by Chicagoans that night:

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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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