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What's Wrong With PROTECT IP and SOPA?

You may have heard about some new bills making their way through the U.S. Congress, related to piracy on the internet. But what are they and what's the big deal? Here's a simple guide to what the laws are and why so many internet nerds (like myself) are against them.

Executive summary: the new laws could make you, as an individual, liable for a five-year prison term for posting any copyrighted work; they would hand massive new power to the entertainment industry (and other content-owning interests) to shut down websites for minor infractions; and they would likely result in large-scale censorship of everything users post online because of these issues. Sounds great, huh? For a summary, check out this video:

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and this post does not contain legal advice. I am actually a copyright holder, and I think these bills threaten the fundamental operation of the internet -- which is where I make my living.

A Tale of Three Acts

In the Senate we have under consideration the PROTECT IP Act (S. 968); in the House there's the Stop Online Piracy Act (HR. 3261) (SOPA). Together, the bills would give copyright owners and governments new power to shut down websites if the copyright owners believe any infringing content is on the sites. Note that no trial has to take place; the content owner -- think "movie studio" -- just has to send a notice saying something bad is going down, then the site can be blocked via a legal injunction brought by a US government attorney and a single judge.

While the stated intent of these laws is clearly good (to reduce online piracy), the execution is so broad that it "breaks the internet" -- these laws shift the balance of power online such that major entertainment industry players (again, think "movie studios" or perhaps "record labels") can strangle websites. Can you think of any websites you visit that might have an image, song, or a video that infringes somebody's copyright? I bet you can. Can you imagine what would happen if copyright holders could block the entire site, prevent advertisements from running, and block credit card payments from occurring? You guessed it: those sites would be dead.

We already have a law in place that governs online piracy, and it predates these two new acts. It's called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and it was passed in 1998. While it has its own problems, it contains pretty straightforward mechanisms for copyright owners to request that their content be taken down. Indeed, "DMCA takedown requests" are very common online, and I have issued them myself to various websites. (I'm not just a writer, I'm a photographer -- and people steal my work all the time. So I find them and issue a takedown request, and the material is removed. Not the easiest thing in the world, but it works.) I want to be totally clear here: I'm against piracy, and I pursue people who pirate my work...and I think these new bills are bonkers. So when a copyright holder who currently exercises his legal powers (me) thinks these bills that would expand his legal powers is going too far, you know something weird is going on.

What these new acts would do effectively takes the sniper rifle of the DMCA -- "Somebody on your forums posted my photo without permission; remove it" -- and turns it into a shotgun: "Somebody on your forums posted my photo without permission; your entire website is blocked for everyone until you remove it." You only have to think for a few moments to realize how many websites would effectively disappear if this were the law of the land -- no more YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Tumblr, Wordpress, or any other site where people can post content of any kind (remember, copyright extends to written works too -- so this is not just about movies and songs). Many of these sites operate based on a mechanism that assumes people can freely post content (often with an automated screening process to try to identify infringing content, as with YouTube), and then copyright holders can identify infringing content, make a complaint, and have it promptly removed. This model (which is fundamental to how the internet works today) breaks down if the new laws pass. It also creates a regime where any new web service needs to enter into some kind of ongoing legal relationship with every copyright holder ever in order to really be safe. This is the definition of strangling innovation: startups can't afford to do the level of content filtering that, say, Google can. So there just won't be any more startups that let people share things. Oh, wonderful!

Who's Against the Bills

In an open letter, a who's-who of major tech companies wrote to Congressional leaders, urging them not to pass these laws. The signatories include AOL, eBay, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Mozilla (they make Firefox), Twitter, Yahoo, and Zynga (they make Farmville and other games). Perhaps the most vocal critic of the legislation has been Tumblr (a blogging site where mental_floss shares content); Tumblr has added information to every user's dashboard pointing to a page called Protect The Internet, offering to call you to tell you more about the issues. Even Kickstarter is against the legislation. Oh, and our friends at Boing Boing have written up their own article on the issue. Guess what, they don't seem to like these laws either.

I live in Oregon, where we happen to have some really smart politicians. At the moment, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has placed a hold on PROTECT IP. In a press release yesterday, Wyden's office quoted his statement to a House Judiciary Committee hearing. Here's a snippet:

As I have said before, this is not an issue where we should use a bunker-buster bomb when a laser beam would do. And that is not just my opinion, venture capitalists who fund Internet start-ups, the biggest and smallest actors in the tech community, law professors concerned with speech, Internet technologists, security experts and mainstream and new media have all expressed concerns about the legislation advancing in Congress.

In writing laws to police the Internet, we need to consider more than how effective a proposed remedy would be at combating infringement, we must also consider the impact proposed remedies will have on everything else online. This means keeping the following in mind:

1. Be deliberate. While rights holders and law enforcement are understandably eager to go after bad actors, we must be mindful of the precedents we set here at home, and around the world.

2. Get the scope right. Narrowly focus law enforcement's authority on those who are willfully and deliberately breaking the law or infringing on others' property rights for commercial gain.

3. Avoid collateral damage. Rather than frustrating the architecture of the Internet or establishing a censoring regime, consider instead promoting approaches that empower users and do no harm to the 'Net. More simply, fish for tuna without catching dolphins.

4. Promote innovation over litigation. Our efforts should be to protect copyrights and trademarks, not outdated business models.

Remember that bit about the five-year prison term I mentioned at the top? Here's a snippet from Boing Boing, quoting Tiffiny from Fight For The Future:

Sites that would be legal under the DMCA and its safe harbor provisions would now risk losing everything for allowing user generated content. It also has added in the streaming felony bill that would make it so ordinary Internet users are at risk of going to jail for 5 years for post[ing] any copyrighted work that would cost $2,500 to license. And because copyright is so broad, that means videos with copyrighted music in the background, kids in a school play, people singing karaoke could all be a risk.

Guess what's also a felony in, oh, let's just pick Oregon? Among many others: burglary, child pornography, DUI, tampering with elections, kidnapping, manslaughter, murder, rape, and robbery. Really, Congress? You're really going to make it a felony to sing a song? That's utterly insane.

What You Can Do

Check out Tumblr's page allowing you to email your representatives or get a phone call with more info; use the Electronic Frontier Foundation's page to find your representatives and email them (it's easy); or check out American Censorship Day (which was yesterday, but there's still time to act).

Also, please share your thoughts in the comments. I'm assuming there is some counter-argument that these bills are a good thing -- I'd love to hear it; all I've found online is a bunch of smart people who I trust saying this is a really bad deal for all of us.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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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iStock
Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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