An Update on SOPA, PIPA, and Last Week's Petitions

Last Wednesday (January 18), Wikipedia and other sites went dark in a protest of pending legislation before the US Congress. Now that the dust has settled, here are some details of what happened.

Let the Backpedaling Begin

On Friday (January 20) Lamar Smith, chief SOPA sponsor, pulled the bill from consideration. At roughly the same time, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid postponed a scheduled vote on PIPA in the Senate. Of the original 13 co-sponsors of the two bills, 7 backed out, saying they couldn't support the bills in their current form.

Lots of people online celebrated all this news by saying "SOPA is dead" and suggesting that PIPA is on life-support. This may or may not be true; many legislators are saying that they want to rewrite the bills and then pass some revised flavor of them (ahem, have y'all seen the OPEN Act? We've got your rewrite right here). This is either legislators trying to gracefully back away, or they're saying exactly what they mean -- which is that, with some tweaks, they might go ahead and pass SOPA/PIPA 2.0. Stay tuned.

Wikipedia's Efforts

The Wikimedia Foundation reported that more than 162 million people saw their blackout message, and 8 million viewed their page about contacting Congress. In a "Thank You" page, Wikipedians wrote:

More than 162 million people saw our message asking if you could imagine a world without free knowledge. You said no. You shut down Congress’s switchboards. You melted their servers. From all around the world your messages dominated social media and the news. Millions of people have spoken in defense of a free and open Internet. ...

For us, this is not about money. It’s about knowledge. As a community of authors, editors, photographers, and programmers, we invite everyone to share and build upon our work.

Our mission is to empower and engage people to document the sum of all human knowledge, and to make it available to all humanity, in perpetuity. We care passionately about the rights of authors, because we are authors.

They also warned in a Learn More page that the bills are not dead. They pointed to a TED Talk by Clay Shirky on "why SOPA is a bad idea":

In self-congratulatory news, I'm weirdly proud that my article from last week rapidly became the #1 result for the Google search "Why is Wikipedia Down?"

Google's Petition

On January 18, Google asked visitors to sign an anti-SOPA/PIPA petition, using the tagline End Piracy, Not Liberty. They received over 7 million signatures, out of 13 million visitors to the petition page.

Mozilla (Firefox)'s Message

Mozilla updated the default landing page in Firefox with a message about SOPA and censorship. They later reported reaching 40 million people, of whom 1.8 million visited the SOPA info page. From there, 360,000 emails to Congress were generated.

The "Quote" Controversy Du Jour

So MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) head Chris Dodd made some remarks on Fox News last week. He said, in part, "Those who count on quote Hollywood for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who's going to stand up for them when their job is at stake. ... Don't ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk and then don't pay any attention to me when my job is at stake." In a brief nerd note, I find it deliciously amusing that this quote includes the word 'quote' because Dodd never managed to close his quotation verbally, so we can't just put quotation marks around the word "Hollywood" when quoting him. Ahem, moving on. But you get the point -- this appears to be a threat from Dodd to stop providing those big fat Hollywood campaign contributions (primarily to Democrats), if legislators don't pass the legislation he wants.

Boom! Pow! Another online petition is born! (As I write this, 18,000 people have signed a petition asking that Dodd be investigated for "bribery.")

What's interesting about this "controversy" is that it's not news -- Hollywood has long been affiliated with Democrats. In an excellent write-up at Ars Technica, Timothy B. Lee pointed out that Republicans have been very quick to disavow SOPA and PIPA, while Democrats' reactions have been more muted. (Indeed, all four Republican presidential candidates came out in opposition to the bills in Thursday's debate. While President Obama is also against the legislation, but you may notice that PIPA's Democratic co-sponsor Patrick Leahy is still firmly for the bill.) In general, SOPA and PIPA started out with broad bipartisan support; at this point, a ProPublica interactive allows you to browse supporters and opponents. By using the "Party" filters, you'll see 39 Democratic supporters and co-sponsors still in favor of the bills, but only 21 Republicans remaining.

Some Other Stuff that You Might Want to Read

The best source I've seen for news on SOPA, PIPA, and technology law in general is Ars Technica. The Ars team has been cranking out terrific coverage day after day -- it's worth a bookmark.

Tech fund Y Combinator wants to "Kill Hollywood" by providing money to disruptive entertainment industry startups.

Tim O'Reilly (of those famous computer books with animals on the front) wrote a Google+ article in which he questions the core assertion that piracy is causing actual economic harm. Singer Jonathan Coulton chimed in on his own blog, discussing the Megaupload shutdown...which, I should remind you, has little to do with SOPA, and might actually be good evidence that we don't need laws like SOPA to shut down online pirates, even overseas ones.

Andy Baio wrote Why SOPA and PIPA Must Die, describing how his own creative career has been hampered by copyright legislation, and suggesting we don't need yet more of it.

Julian Sanchez posted a longish read on Ars Technica entitled SOPA, Internet regulation, and the economics of piracy, running the numbers on how piracy works from an economic point of view. You should read it.

Stay tuned for further developments. If you haven't read my previous articles on this topic, check out Why is Wikipedia Down? and What’s Wrong With PROTECT IP and SOPA?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]