Watch How Computers Perform Optical Character Recognition

iStock // nikolay100
iStock // nikolay100

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.

Samsung Is Fixing Bug That Lets Anyone Unlock Fingerprint-Protected Galaxy S10s

stevanovicigor/iStock via Getty Images
stevanovicigor/iStock via Getty Images

Users of the Samsung Galaxy S10, fear not: A fix is on the way for your device’s faulty fingerprint reader. According to Engadget, Samsung Electronics told Reuters in a statement that it is “aware of the case of the S10’s malfunctioning fingerprint recognition and will soon issue a software patch.”

Soon after the device’s initial release, consumers discovered that a 3D-printed fingerprint could unlock the phones. Then, UK user Lisa Neilson reported to The Sun that any human fingerprint would work on her phone. Though we don’t know exactly why the technology is malfunctioning, it has happened through the use of third-party plastic or silicon screen protectors—Neilson had purchased hers on eBay.

“It’s a real concern,” Neilson told The Sun, in large part because people nowadays store much more than contacts and photos on their smartphones. “Anyone can access it and could get into the financial apps and transfer funds.”

Samsung users can protect their phone's security with an old-fashioned number code. Though not as hassle-free as the fingerprint mechanism, the code will work just fine.

The company hasn’t disclosed when we can expect a solution, though it confirmed to Engadget that an internal investigation is underway and customers should stick to using authorized Samsung products in the meantime, rather than third-party screen protectors.

[h/t Engadget]

11 Things We No Longer See In Schools

Popartic/iStock via Getty Images
Popartic/iStock via Getty Images

If you ask a fifth grader what a card catalog is, there’s a good chance your question will be met with a blank stare. And while this might make you feel positively ancient, there are definitely some academic traditions and technologies from your parents’ and grandparents’ generations that you’re too young to know about, too. For example, did you ever solve a multiplication problem with a slide rule, or carry your books with a book strap?

Here are eight things that you may or may not remember from your time in school, but today’s students probably won’t.

1. Card Catalogs

Before digital catalogs could deliver a list of books perfectly matched to even the vaguest search term, you had to manually hunt for relevant information in the drawers of a massive cabinet. However unwieldy and inefficient card catalogs may seem compared to current technology, there was a certain tactile satisfaction in thumbing through card after card to find a particular author, title, or subject. The Online Computer Library Center officially declared the death of the card catalog in 2015 after it sent its last shipment of cards to Concordia College’s library in Bronxville, New York. But plenty of old catalogs live on as storing units for sewing supplies, wine bottles, and more.

2. Food Pyramids

1995 USDA food pyramid
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The 1992 food pyramid that many Millennials likely remember from their early school days broke food groups into ambiguous serving sizes and advised you to eat the most servings of bread, rice, cereal, or pasta each day. It was replaced in 2005 with the more modern MyPyramid diagram, which identified serving sizes in cups or ounces and corresponded with a website you could visit for more information. In 2011, the USDA effectively killed the food pyramid altogether with the launch of MyPlate, a new plate-shaped diagram that recommends you eat mostly vegetables and grains. This, of course, has an extensive website of its own.

3. Rope Climbs

Though fitness tests in gym class have been stressing students out at least since the early 1960s, some of the tests themselves have changed. According to the parameters set by the Presidential Youth Fitness Program—which schools can use as a guide for evaluating grade school P.E. students—push-ups, pull-ups, and curl-ups have withstood the test of time, but there’s no mention of a rope climb. The new dreaded portion of the exam is the PACER, a series of sprints during which you have progressively less time to complete each one.

4. Slide Rules

slide rule
claudiodivizia/iStock via Getty Images

The slide rule, which dates back to the 1600s, did the job of a calculator before modern calculators existed in the classroom. It looks like a ruler crammed with extra lines and numbers, but the middle portion slides back and forth to give you the answers to multiplication and division problems, exponents, square roots, and more. It fell out of fashion with Hewlett-Packard’s introduction of the handheld electronic calculator in 1972, though some particularly fastidious math teachers still use them to keep their students from succumbing to the somewhat mindless nature of automatic calculators.

5., 6., 7., and 8. Chalkboards, Chalk, Chalk Erasers, and Chalk Holders

chalkboard, eraser, and chalk
diamondsky/iStock via Getty Images

Since just about every chalkboard has been replaced by either its cooler younger sibling, the dry-erase board, or its genius baby cousin, the smart board, it stands to reason that all chalkboard accessories have also gone out the window—no more chalk, chalk holders, or chalkboard erasers. The gradual disappearance of chalkboards also means that children will no longer understand the actual noise made by fingernails on a chalkboard. Much like we use the phrase chalk it up to mean “give credit” without having experienced it in its original context—where store owners would write a customer’s outstanding charges on a chalkboard—future generations might use “fingernails on a chalkboard” as an almost meaningless synonym for “really bad sound.”

9. Book Straps

book strap
Hemera Technologies/iStock via Getty Images

Before students carted heavy textbooks around in backpacks, tucked them into the crooks of their arms, or simply decided not to bring them to class, there was the book strap: a glorified leather belt which fastened around a pile of books and often included a handle. It didn’t protect your books from bad weather and it didn’t contain compartments for any other school supplies, but it might help keep your pants up if you forgot your actual belt.

10. Dodgeball

Dodgeball may not have completely disappeared from schools yet, but it’s only a matter of time before hearing the name never again evokes that strange mixture of excitement and fear. The soft-balled combat competition, also known as bombardment, killer ball, and murder ball, so obviously pits athletes against their less coordinated classmates and promotes the idea of a human target that it’s ceased to be the cornerstone of gym class. Many schools have outright banned it, while others have quietly replaced it with less polarizing activities. And, if Justin Long’s concussion on the set of 2004’s cult classic DodgeBall is any indication, those foam balls can cause some damage.

11. Dunce caps

student wearing a dunce cap in classroom
Library of Congress // Public Domain

The earliest known written mention of a dunce cap was in Charles Dickens’s 1840 novel, The Old Curiosity Shop, in which it’s made of old newspapers and sits on its own shelf in the classroom. The conical symbol of idiocy gained popularity during the Victorian era throughout both the U.S. and Europe, and continued to humiliate schoolchildren well into the 1950s. As if standing alone in the corner wearing flashy headgear didn’t draw enough attention to you, sometimes the dunce cap even featured bells.

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