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How Do You Advertise a Movie with No Name?

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By now I'm sure you've all heard of that new J.J. Abrams movie. You know, the one with the monsters. It comes out on January 18. And"¦it's a J.J. Abrams movie. Truth is, that's just about all we know. Even without any details, the movie, known colloquially as "Cloverfield," is still building all kinds of buzz because of its clever viral marketing. The teaser played before Transformers and revealed nothing, save the release date, Abrams' name and the fact that the Statue of Liberty would be decapitated. Following the trailer, crazed fans found the site, which contained a series of pictures that my untrained eyes dismissed as blurry and pointless. Others more wise in the ways of geekdom, however, found hidden clues in the pictures that will supposedly lead them to other sites with more information about the movie (Abrams promises a full trailer, clips and, eventually, a name further on the quest).

Amazingly, this marketing technique is one that's become quite popular for movie studios, although it hasn't been used to such an extent before. A form of guerrilla advertising, viral marketing is just a way to build buzz through the Internet. Hotmail is credited with starting the whole thing, but The Blair Witch Project brought it to Hollywood. The low-budget production didn't have money to spend on elaborate trailers and giveaways, so it built buzz by spreading a rumor on Internet chatrooms that three college students had disappeared while making a video about a witch (that's the plot of the movie, if you didn't know). Even before the film was announced, people were already talking about the legend of the Blair Witch. The simple marketing technique paid off in the end, as the movie scored $248 million at the box office.

406px-AI_Poster.jpgSince then, Hollywood's viral campaigns have become more intense, requiring a real commitment to follow clues. Take the campaign for Steven Spielberg's futuristic fairy tale, A.I. After Googling "Jeanine Salla," viewers could visit an entire alternate Internet set in the movie's universe with everything from history pages to university websites. Some sites contained hidden messages in the HTML source code, others sent you threatening emails. Fans started sharing their discoveries on message boards and the game got millions excited for the movie (sadly, critics didn't share the excitement and A.I. opened to mixed reviews).

This interactive form of marketing has caught on for movie campaigns. The upcoming Batman flick, The Dark Knight, is in the midst of a fun one right now (you can follow it's early progress here). They've even started taking the leap off the screen; fans at this year's Comic-Con could have nabbed Slusho shirts with clues about Cloverfield. Even better were the dollar bills defaced by the Joker as pat of the Dark Knight campaign, leading fans to this creepy site (coulrophobes beware). Abrams has been especially adept at using them, having built online games for both Alias and Lost to keep fans interested while the shows were on hiatus. It's questionable how successful these types of campaigns really are, though. They appeal to a select group of people, those with enough free time (or a really boring job) to scour websites. You need to have a pretty extreme passion for the subject already, which is why Batman gets this treatment while, say, the Devil Wears Prada didn't. Some viral games meant to appeal to a wide audience have tanked. Take Push, Nevada, a Ben Affleck-produced show that was like Twin Peaks on steroids. Phone numbers, websites and other clues were planted in the show itself, so viewers were expected to follow them on their own. Unlike most other viral campaigns, Push did have a goal- a $1 million payoff for the winner. It just never caught on, though, and the show was cancelled after only seven episodes (the reward was still given out).

ring04.jpgThe best Hollywood viral campaign, though, has to belong to the Ring 2. Before the film was announced, the studio set up message boards with fake posts about people freaking out about having seen the film's deadly video. But the real treat was before the DVD release; fans could track down a site and enter a friend's email address and phone number. They were then sent a link to the video, which, when viewed, triggered a phone call letting them know they would die in seven days. I'm not sure how successful that would be; I know that if I had been hit with that, I wouldn't have bought the DVD because I'd be too busy curling into the fetal position under the covers.

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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]