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8 More Surprising Things Banned by the BBC

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Thinkstock/Bryan Dugan

There’s a reason why the BBC, Britain’s mostly independent but publicly-funded television and radio broadcaster, is still called “Auntie”: Like a maiden aunt, the complaint goes, the BBC always thinks it knows what’s best for its audiences. The network takes its role as an arbiter of taste, morals, ethics, and standards very seriously. And as such, the BBC doesn’t show just anything—for example, chat show presenters aren’t allowed to smoke cigarettes, and depictions of drugs or alcohol are not allowed on children’s programming without a really good reason.

However, what the BBC decides to ban or not allow is, well, sometimes a little weird. We've already covered what songs the BBC has banned; here are some other weird things once banished by their airwaves.

1. Airing anything from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.

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Back in the early days of television, programming both in the US and the UK wasn’t like a tap—you couldn’t just turn on the TV at any hour of the day or night and expect there to be something to watch. But even as the number of viewable hours increased in the 1950s to around 50 hours a week, mostly filling up the evening and early afternoon hours, there was one hour that was sacred: Between 6 and 7 at night. This was the so-called “toddlers’ truce,” a period of TV silence just after children’s programming, which ran from 5 to 6 p.m., ended. Turning off broadcasts for that hour gave parents (well, mothers) the opportunity to get their kids to bed without TV as a distraction, advocates claimed.

This was all well and good if there was only one broadcaster. But in 1955, the recently launched ITV, a competitor channel that lived off advertising revenue, complained that the hour’s silence was an hour they weren’t making money. This, they claimed, gave the BBC, which was funded by collecting licensing fees from the public, an unfair advantage.

After a bit of government back and forth, the BBC ended the toddlers’ truce on February 16, 1957, when it ran a five-minute news broadcast followed by an innovative new teen show, The Six-Five Special, on Saturday nights. The show was an early attempt at the kind of bandstand programming that would later dominate teen viewership, featuring hip rock n’ roll and other stuff that the kids were into in those days. The first show kicked off with the presenter saying, “Welcome aboard The Six-Five Special. We've got almost a hundred cats jumping here, some real cool characters to give us the gas, so just get on with it and have a ball.” Say what now? 

2. Star Trek

Courtesy of HighDefDiscNews

Four episodes of the original series of Star Trek were not aired on the BBC because, according to the Beeb, “they all dealt most unpleasantly with the already unpleasant subjects of madness, torture, sadism and disease.” The episodes in question were “Whom Gods Destroy,” “Miri,” “The Empath,” and “Plato’s Stepchildren" (which featured one of the first interracial kisses on television). It wasn’t the last time the Final Frontier ran afoul of British taste; in 1988, the BBC initially refused to run a somewhat gruesome episode of The Next Generation called “Conspiracy,” which featured alien parasites taking over Starfleet officials’ brains (the episode later ran in an edited form). Another episode, “The High Ground,” which dealt with terrorism and made a glancing reference to Irish nationalism, was also dropped from the initial run, but re-aired in 2007. 

3. Alien life

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Speaking of the Final Frontier—in November 2012, superstar physicist Brian Cox said that he and his BBC Two series, Stargazing Live, were prevented from investigating life on a recently discovered planet because BBC heads thought making contact with extraterrestrials would violate health and safety guidelines. Cox had planned on pointing a large telescope at Threapleton Holmes B, the planet in question, to listen for signs of life, but the Beeb put the kibosh on the plans. Cox was incredulous; he told BBC’s Radio 6: "[I said], you mean we would discover the first hint that there is other intelligent life in the universe beyond Earth, live on air, and you're worried about the health and safety of it? … It was incredible. They did have guidelines. Compliance!"

4. Kettles

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The BBC’s student quiz show, University Challenge, refused to allow a team from Goldsmiths College in London to use a kettle—as in the thing you boil water for tea in—as their mascot, on the grounds that it was an overtly political message. Though the kettle may look like an innocent kitchen appliance, in this context, students were using it to protest the London police’s “kettling” protestors during demonstrations, a practice that involves corralling or containing “unruly” demonstrators.

5. Hypnotism

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Well, sort of: The BBC doesn’t expressly ban hypnotists from its radio and TV broadcasts, but it does require that “Any proposal to feature a demonstration of hypnosis must be referred to a senior editorial figure or, for independents, to the commissioning editor.” So you can do it, but only with approval. That’s because the UK’s Hypnotism Act of 1952 requires that any demonstrations of hypnotism for public entertainment be licensed, and prohibits any demonstrations on people under the age of 18; the Act stemmed from concerns about the safety of stage hypnosis. The Act also states that the cops can lawfully enter a premises if they believe some unlawful hypnosis is going on. So, you know, watch out.

6. Communist folksingers

Courtesy of Last.Fm

According to MI5 documents released in 2006, the BBC was a hotbed of anti-communist paranoia during and after World War II—so much so that it banned that likes of British folksinger Ewan MacColl and his theatre producer wife, Joan Littlewood (MacColl, by the way, was also not allowed to enter the U.S. owing to his red sympathies). But folksingers weren’t the only “subversives” the Beeb feared: The Guardian reported that MI5 had an officer resident at the BBC who vetted all editorial applicants from the 1930s through the end of the Cold War. Those who were deemed suspicious had their files marked with a green tag, called a “Christmas tree,” the meaning of which was only known to a few higher-ups.

7. Bananas! And picking up sausages with tongs!

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The BBC made headlines (in papers that like to make fun of the BBC) in January after bananas were “banned” at its new headquarters in London; according to a spokesman, the “ban” was really more of a consideration for a staff member who has a severe allergy to the yellow fruit. The funny part, however, was that certain areas in the newsroom now sported signs featuring a banana with a big cross through it.

In other health and safety news, The Mirror reported on April 10 that BBC employees are “fuming” over new regulations in the canteen preventing them from picking up hot sausages with tongs or making their own toast. One anonymous Beeb worker told the newspaper, “I was told I couldn’t pick up two sausages with the tongs to put in a roll as I might burn myself. The sausages were hardly sizzling hot but I resent that someone in a pinny [apron] can tell me I can’t take care of myself.”

8. Sacha Baron Cohen (as the ‘Dictator,’ at least)

Courtesy of Collider

Extreme satirist Sacha Baron Cohen, the genius behind the squirm-inducing Ali G, Borat, Bruno, and The Dictator, claimed in May 2012 that he, as his Dictator persona, was “banned” from the BBC. Untrue, said the BBC. "There is no ban," a BBC spokesman told the BBC (no, really, he did), "but our chat shows thrive on the spontaneous banter between guests and the presenter, something you just don't get when people come on as characters. We'd love to have Sacha on as himself.”

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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
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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:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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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]

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