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YouTube / NewTek

The Video Toaster 4000

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YouTube / NewTek

Did you know that actor Wil Wheaton helped develop a video editing system in the early 1990s? Read on for some deep nerd trivia.

If I told you there was a serious computer system named the Video Toaster 4000, you might think that was a joke. Unless, of course, you did any video editing in the 90s. Dear friends, the 90s were a special time for video -- camcorders were common, VCRs were common, but in order to edit that raw tape into a hip skating video with over-the-top 3D effects and purple-and-green checkerboard backgrounds, your options were limited. The Video Toaster 4000 was a Commodore Amiga-based system offering a huge library of special effects (many cheesy, some very tasteful, and all frankly amazing) for "only" five thousand bucks (compared, seriously, to hundreds of thousands for other setups). And my high school had one.

In the back room of my school's library Media Center, we had a TV studio. In the heart of the control room was the Toaster. I learned to use the system, and worked on my school's morning announcements TV show for years, often running the Toaster live during the show, switching between cameras, B-roll from a VCR, and running live credits typed into the character generator. After our first year on the air, certain transition effects were banned due to overuse (one involved a spaceship flying into frame and then a flash of light, transitioning to the next shot; another featured a woman in either a maid outfit or an overly minimal witch costume walking into the frame and tapping a magic wand to switch scenes). But, I'll admit it, occasionally a banned transition effect (3D CUBE WIPE!) would make its way into the morning news due to "operator error."

Here's a promotional video introducing the system, including brief appearances by actual Video Toaster owners Wil Wheaton, Penn Jillette, and Tony Hawk. In this video, you see most of the effects generated by the Toaster, and you may recognize them from 90s TV -- these things were in use in lots of TV studios. The Lightwave 3D software (part of the Toaster suite, later sold separately) was used for special effects on seaQuest and Babylon 5, among others. Okay, now check out the video -- and pay special attention to the segment at 1:52, introducing Wheaton as "Actor / Toaster Punk."

For more on Wheaton's involvement in the Toaster's development, read an interview with Geeks of Doom. Wheaton said, in part:

"When I worked for NewTek and worked on the Video Toaster 4000, I didn’t do any of the actual programing. I did a ton of product testing and quality control, and worked in the marketing department and then I was sort of one of their technology evangelists." ...

... "I’m really proud to have been part of the very beginning [of home video editing]. We were the tip of the spear in Personal Video Production — which is what we called it back in ’94. I think it was ’94 when were were doing that. Y’know, I think you can draw almost a straight line between iMovie and Final Cut to the Toaster."

And here's a demo of an earlier version, explaining a bit of the technical background:

And just a few more -- these are from a Toaster-produced demo video called Revolution; note that the start of the second video features the infamous "falling sheep" effect, which was also banned at my high school for being overly cheesy:

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Wi-Fi 101: How to Tell If Your Connection is Not Private
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Free and readily-accessible Wi-Fi is just about everywhere these days, including cafes, hotels, airports, bars, offices, subway stations, and even public parks. But how do you know that the network you're using will keep your personal information protected? While most wireless routers and laptops have built-in firewall protections, just about anyone connected to the same network could peer into your device and view your activity without you even knowing it, even when you're online in the comfort of your very own home.

Fortunately, most modern browsers—including Apple’s Safari, Microsoft Edge, and Google Chrome—have privacy features built-in, but every now and then an error message stating something like “Your Connection Is Not Private” may pop up on your browser and prevent you from visiting an unsafe website (which doesn't necessarily mean a website or your connection is corrupted; there are multiple reasons why this error warning can be triggered). There are a few ways to tell whether your connection is secure from hackers who want your passwords, credit card information, or other information you want to keep private.

First off, make sure you see a padlock icon next to the Wi-Fi icon in your computer's toolbar or, if you're using Windows, that there is a security type mentioned in the “Security” tab to make sure you’re on a password-protected and private network. And before you part with any money or passwords online, make sure you see

https://” instead of the commonly used “http://” at the beginning of the URL, which is an easy way to make sure you're on a secure site. You can also look for a closed padlock icon on the browser toolbar itself; this is an extra layer of protection that verifies websites as legitimate and uncompromised, and encrypts your personal info from end-to-end, so that hackers can’t read it.

Most Internet browsers also have a private or incognito browsing feature under the “File” tab, which automatically clears your browsing and search history and doesn't store Internet cookies for tracking services or ad targeting. While this feature “hides” your web activity, it doesn't make you invisible from internet service providers, employers, or the websites themselves.

Although it might enable your device to “talk” to other internet-enabled devices in your home or office, like a printer, you also want to turn off sharing on your laptop once you’re in public. Sharing can allow anyone on your Wi-Fi network to access files and folders on your device.

On a PC, open the “Control Panel,” click “Network and Internet,” and then “Choose Change Advanced Sharing Settings.” From here you can turn off file and printer sharing. Furthermore, laptops running Windows 10 can enable a “Make This PC Discoverable” feature to set it from public to private. On a Mac, go to “System Preferences” and then “Sharing” and make sure all checkboxes are unchecked.

In addition, you can enable a firewall to block unauthorized access into your computer, while you can communicate with the outside world via the Internet. On a PC, fire up the “Control Panel,” and then click “System and Security” to enable a firewall. On a Mac, launch “System Preferences,” and then go to “Security & Privacy” to turn it on.

Lastly, consider using a virtual private network (VPN) when browsing the Internet. While turning off sharing and enabling a firewall might prevent hackers from looking into your laptop, a VPN can block an Internet provider, including Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner, from knowing which websites you visit through your IP address altogether (although some VPN companies have been known to sell your browsing history). Services like Project Tor can mask that information by bouncing it around through a series of random servers—each with its very own IP address—from all around the world. So instead of sending web info from your laptop in Cicero, Illinois to a server in Chicago, a VPN would send that same info from Cicero to New York City to Amsterdam to Kuwait City to Manila to Los Angeles and then to Chicago.

There are also a few smaller things you can do to keep your Wi-Fi connection private, such as clearing your browsing data every few days or weeks, changing your passwords with a password manager like LastPass or Zoho Vault, and keeping your Wi-Fi turned off when you’re not using it. Luckily, most modern Internet browsers are really prompt about sending updates and patches to fix bugs and security breaches, but the best thing you can do is to stay vigilant and not join any open or sketchy Wi-Fi networks around you.

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technology
Watch How Computers Perform Optical Character Recognition
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Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is the key technology in scanning books, signs, and all other real-world texts into digital form. OCR is all about identifying a picture of written language (or set of letters, numbers, glyphs, you name it) and sorting out what specific characters are in there.

OCR is a hard computer science problem, though you wouldn't know it from its current pervasive presence in consumer software. Today, you can point a smartphone at a document, or a sign in a national park, and instantly get a pretty accurate OCR read-out...and even a translation. It has taken decades of research to reach this point.

Beyond the obvious problems—telling a lowercase "L" apart from the number "1," for instance—there are deep problems associated with OCR. For one thing, the system needs to figure out what font is in use. For another, it needs to sort out what language the writing is in, as that will radically affect the set of characters it can expect to see together. This gets especially weird when a single photo contains multiple fonts and languages. Fortunately, computer scientists are awesome.

In this Computerphile video, Professor Steve Simske (University of Nottingham) walks us through some of the key computer science challenges involved with OCR, showing common solutions by drawing them out on paper. Tune in and learn how this impressive technology really works:

A somewhat related challenge, also featuring Simske, is "security printing" and "crazy text." Check out this Computerphile video examining those computer science problems, for another peek into how computers see (and generate) text and imagery.

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