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When Is Your Child Ready for a Smartphone?

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The Slide & Talk Smart Phone manufactured by VTech is an electronic toy intended for ages 2 through 5. Designed to resemble an actual cell phone, it allows kids to practice sending text messages, customize ringtones, and receive phone calls from virtual friends. "Play eight fun-filled activities in phone mode or message mode that introduces your child to letters, numbers, phone routines, typing messages, and more," the ad copy reads.

For the telecommunications industry, this type of early indoctrination is proving invaluable. While smartphones have become ubiquitous among adults, they can also be found in a rising number of adolescent pockets. According to a 2013 PEW Research Center study, 78 percent of American children between 12 and 17 had phones; in a 2012 National Consumers League survey, 60 percent of polled adults said they offered a phone to their 10- to 11-year-old; 10 is now the average age for acquiring their first device.

For parents, smartphones are useful: They're a way to keep track of their child’s location, and they satisfy the peer pressure that often accompanies a request for a mobile device. But increasingly, experts are cautioning that adults who equip kids with easy access to social media and instant communication may be creating more problems than they solve.


Jesse Weinberger, an internet safety expert who lectures across the country on the perils of digital socialization, believes that parents are missing some key issues when deliberating over phone usage.

"My general rule is not to give a phone to someone younger than a freshman in high school, 13 or 14," Weinberger says. "There’s a lack of critical thinking prior to that. They’re missing impulse control and they believe whatever they see."

In smartphone ownership, that can be highly problematic. In her lecture circuit, Weinberger polled over 70,000 children on issues relating to phone usage and inappropriate content. "The onset of porn consumption is 8," she says. "'Sexting' is beginning in the fourth and fifth grades."

While these issues are present on the internet regardless of how it’s accessed, Weinberger believes the easy reach of a smartphone creates a far different atmosphere. "The two things are not synonymous and not equal. And the reason is the immediacy and permanence of a smartphone in a kid’s hand at all times."

Weinberger points out that social media has become so popular that authority figures make a common oversight. Applications like Instagram and Facebook are technically not meant to be accessible to those under 13 years old, yet children bypass simple birthday checks without a second thought. The apps are then used to help validate their social standing by measuring followers and likes.

"Kids lie," Weinberger says. "Eighty percent of kids will raise their hand when I ask if they have Instagram. They have three or four accounts, three to four email addresses. Parents have no idea what’s going on."


For some adults, that uncertainty leads them to believe that monitoring apps or checking their child’s phone for inappropriate content can resolve some of those issues. But Weinberger cautions that the idea of "monitoring" a smart phone is more involved than it appears. "That can become a part-time job," she says. "There’s a lot that goes into monitoring and consequences and supervising." Making that job harder is the emergence of "vault" apps like Smart Hide Calculator, which looks and functions like a calculator but can actually hide photos or texts that users don’t wish for others to see.

Smartphones aren’t limited in their danger by potentially premature social interactions. Physiologically, Weinberger notes that back-lit devices used before bed can often disrupt circadian sleep rhythms; checking email can lead to an event informally dubbed "email apnea," where we subconsciously hold our breath and refresh pages to see if any fresh communication has come in. In developing bodies, that could prove disruptive. "There are reasons known and not yet known" why smartphones can prove hazardous, Weinberger notes.

In the end, parents will have to make their own determination whether their child is capable of handling a smartphone responsibly, or if they might be better served to equip them with a so-called "dumb" phone with limited internet and app capabilities. (Such flip-style phones are getting harder to find, although Nokia has plans to re-introduce a basic cell device from 2000.) Regardless, Weinberger maintains that setting limits on its usage and educating children on possible predation from peers or lurking adults is key.

When it comes to safety, "the question isn’t really when a child is ready for a phone," Weinberger says. "The question is, when is the parent ready?"

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]