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5 Things You Should Know About Congress's ISP Vote

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On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to eliminate rules blocking Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from selling personal information about their customers. This follows a Senate vote on the same subject. Here's what you need to know about the vote, the rules, and what happens next.

1. IN 2016, THE FCC MADE NEW RULES TO PROTECT CONSUMERS' INFORMATION.

In 2016, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) developed a series of rules around what ISPs could do with their customers' information. The rules were intended to force ISPs to keep sensitive information private, unless their customers specifically opted in to let this data be sold. The category of "sensitive information" includes things like your web browsing history, Social Security number, location, health data, app usage, children's information, and contents of email and other communications.

In addition to the sensitive information, the 2016 rules also specified that ISPs could collect and sell non-sensitive information, as long as customers were notified and given a chance to opt out. (This is similar to how credit card companies notify consumers of what data they collect and sell, and specify how to opt out.) Examples of non-sensitive information are a customer's email address and tier of internet service.

Another part of the rules were requirements that ISPs implement strong protections for consumer data and disclose security breaches (hacking incidents) to consumers.

The rules were adopted on October 27, 2016 against the objections of Republicans on the commission. (The FCC vote approving the rules was 3-2, along party lines, with Democrats in the majority.) The rules would have gone into effect at the end of 2017.

2. THIS WEEK, REPUBLICANS VOTED TO REMOVE THOSE RULES.

With the change in administrations, Republican Ajit Pai became Chairman of the FCC and set about reversing the 2016 rules. (That's Pai pictured above, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee's Privacy, Technology and the Law Subcommittee.) Resolutions were approved by the Senate and then the House eliminating the privacy rules. These votes were just as partisan as those that established the rules, passing with only Republican votes. (Some Republicans did vote against the bill, but no Democrats voted for it.)

The key argument of the rules' opponents is that non-ISP businesses operating online (including social networks like Facebook) are not restricted by these rules. This means that if Facebook (for example) wants to sell data it has about you, it is not subject to these rules because Facebook is not an ISP. Major web companies are therefore operating at a competitive advantage over ISPs.

The counter-argument is that ISPs are special because they can peek at everything you do online. They own the wire (or cell tower) that your data passes through, and they can watch what goes through it. Companies like Facebook don't have this level of access—and thus, they don't have this level of regulation.

These votes came under the authority of the Congressional Review Act, which enables Congress to remove regulations by a "joint resolution of disapproval."

3. NEXT, PRESIDENT TRUMP EITHER SIGNS OR VETOES THE BILL.

The next step is for President Trump to weigh in. It's widely expected that he will sign the bill, making it law and thus nullifying the FCC rules in question before they go into effect. It's important to note that the new FCC rules never went into effect, so ISPs have been allowed to operate free of them all along. The change, assuming the bill is signed into law, is to block the rules in the future. (One side effect of using the Congressional Review Act to reverse these rules is that the FCC will not be able to set similar rules in the future without Congressional involvement.)

4. WHO WANTS TO BUY THIS DATA ANYWAY?

The most obvious buyer of consumer data is advertisers. If advertisers have access to specific data about individuals, they can target their ads far more effectively. For instance, if someone is trying to buy a new car—perhaps indicated by browsing car listings online—rival car dealers want to know that.

Some activists have vowed to purchase data about members of Congress and publish it in protest. Although the bill is not yet law, it’s not impossible that this could happen.

5. WHAT CAN CONSUMERS DO ABOUT IT?

The key things consumers can do are: contact their ISPs and inquire about opting out of data sharing (to the extent the ISP allows it); learn about encryption measures to prevent ISPs from snooping; and consider using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to encrypt all web traffic.

Using a VPN is controversial because it routes data through another company's servers, which means that company must be fully trustworthy. VPN technology also slows down web access, due to the extra routing step. Finally, as WIRED points out, sites like Netflix block VPNs to keep people from streaming movies and shows that aren't licensed in their area.

As a general rule, privacy-sensitive consumers should look for the "lock" icon (indicating a secure connection) within their browsers in order to ensure their browsing is encrypted. There are even plugins for some browsers that automate this process.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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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]

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