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Why is Wikipedia Down?

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If you're in the US you speak English and you visit Wikipedia today, you'll see a glimpse of the page you were trying to access, then you'll see the blackout message above. You'll see similar messages from Google, Reddit, and others. Why? Although each of these sites does a good job of explaining its position, here's a rundown of the issues involved in today's shutdown.

An Extremely Brief History Lesson

In 1998, the US Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a bill that, among other things, created a simple system by which copyright owners could request that infringing content be removed from websites hosted in the US. In short, the copyright owner tells the website, "I own this video/photo/song and you have to remove it, or I'll sue you." Then it gets removed, or they go to court. Have you ever seen a YouTube video that's replaced with the red sad-face? That's a DMCA takedown. This system has worked reasonably well for the past decade and a half, although there have been abuses -- sometimes copyright owners request removal of content they don't actually own. But in general, the DMCA has become accepted in the tech community as a reasonable part of doing business online.

The Bills

The DMCA is not enough for some copyright holders, partly because it only applies to US-hosted websites. Citing questionable statistics about the impact of piracy, the Motion Picture Association of America, the US Chamber of Commerce, and others demanded more. That's how we get to the anti-piracy bills currently under consideration.

Two bills are currently being debated in the US Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate. Both were written to curtail online piracy of copyrighted content like movies and music; major backers of the bills include a laundry list of media companies -- in broad strokes, this is record labels and movie studios, though a few tech companies (most infamously GoDaddy) also support the bills. The bills are also heavily supported by the bipartisan committees considering them, although President Obama is against them.

Why today? There were supposed to be hearings on Capitol Hill today about SOPA. The various tech companies involved in today's protest timed their blackout to coincide with the hearings, to draw attention to them. But then the hearings were postponed...and the blackout continued anyway. Here's a snippet from a recent Ars Technica article:

Meanwhile, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), a SOPA opponent, announced Saturday that he is postponing hearings on SOPA's DNS provisions that had been slated for Wednesday, January 18 before his House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"While I remain concerned about Senate action on the Protect IP Act, I am confident that flawed legislation will not be taken up by this House," Issa said. "Majority Leader Cantor has assured me that we will continue to work to address outstanding concerns and work to build consensus prior to any anti-piracy legislation coming before the House for a vote."

The net effect of this (likely as Issa intended) is even more attention to the issue, plus time for citizens to become aware of the issues and pressure their Congressional representatives. Indeed, Google and others are hosting petitions and encouraging US citizens to make a fuss.

What's the Problem? Piracy is Bad, Right?

The bills have unintended consequences far beyond stopping piracy -- at least, that's what the opposition says. The main objection is that the bills use a very blunt approach to "stopping piracy," which can be summarized as "breaking the internet" by blocking DNS access to domain names with any infringing content. What Wikipedia is saying (and for the record, I agree with them) is that the entire Wikipedia domain would be blocked for everyone, every time a piece of infringing content was found, under the provisions of SOPA -- and because anyone can post anything to Wikipedia, this could happen a lot. Wikipedia could also be prevented from receiving credit card payments -- which is actually important, because Wikipedia is funded by donations. This is a far cry from today's DMCA regime, where the actual infringing content is removed or a court case occurs, rather than blocking the entire website.

There are many excellent metaphors out there to describe what's wrong with the legislation's proposed techniques, but one written up by commenter TechBear on The Stranger's Blog is particularly easy to follow: "A friend of mine described the draconian measures to shut down internet providers as 'cracking down on mail fraud by arresting postal carriers.'" Indeed, DNS servers are like the mail carriers of the internet.

The other existential objection to SOPA/PIPA is the notion that it will quell new innovation online. In a SOPA/PIPA world, every new web service that allows users to post anything would have to live under constant threat of a shutdown. The logical outcome is you wouldn't build new stuff that let people post anything. If entrepreneurs are afraid to build new online services, our economy and our culture would be under threat.

Opponents of SOPA/PIPA tend to agree that piracy is bad. But they're saying these bills are the wrong way to stop piracy. In other words, stop the people committing mail fraud -- not the mail carriers. This video is a pretty good explanation of the situation:

What Do Supporters Say?

I know this is utterly reductionist, but the gist of it is "Nuh-uh." To be a little more fair, proponents of the bill (there are many in Congress and in industry -- and it's a very bipartisan group) say that they're trying to protect jobs and the economy. They suggest that piracy costs jobs, hurting the economy, and we must do something to stop it -- and specifically SOPA/PIPA is necessary to target not just domestic pirates, but international sites as well (this is code for "The Pirate Bay").

The New York Times ran this quote today:

“The bill will not harm Wikipedia, domestic blogs or social network sites,” said Representative Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas and a primary sponsor of the House bill.

Oh. I suppose Wikipedia, Google, Reddit, et al are all wrong about the effects of this legislation on their businesses.

What Happens Next?

We wait for a vote. Today, there are at least two Wikipedia pages that are still up -- those on SOPA and PIPA. Many opponents of SOPA/PIPA are promoting the OPEN Act instead. A list of striking sites is available from SOPA Strike. Read up on some more media coverage of the issue from The Week, or read my previous article on this stuff, What’s Wrong With PROTECT IP and SOPA?

Update, 20 January 2012: Just two days after the blackout protest, SOPA has been yanked and the PIPA vote has been postponed.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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