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Our Favorite Vampires

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Vampires come in all shapes and forms, and they are certainly more numerous (at least at parties) near Halloween! Here's a look at some pop culture vampires.

Vlad Tepes III, also known as Vlad Dracula or Vlad the Impaler, was the prince of Wallachia (a region of Romania) in the 15th century. Although he was a cruel leader, having tortured and killed thousands of his own citizens, he was never considered a vampire. He was the inspiration for the Bram Stoker character Dracula because of the name, which means "son of Dracul". His father, Vlad Tepes II took the name Dracul as a member of the Order of the Dragon. Because of this inspiration, he is an "honorary" pop culture vampire.

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The 1922 film Nosferatu was the first widely-seen movie based on the the Bram Stoker novel Dracula. However, it was not an authorized adaptation, so the names were changed. "Nosferatu" is supposedly a Romanian word for vampire, but the origin of the word is in doubt. Max Schrek played the title character, called Count Orlok, as a repulsive and terrifying creature. The film is in the public domain, and available on the internet.

But we're just getting started! Lots more vampires, after the jump.

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Count Dracula is the best known vampire of all. He was the subject of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, and set the stage for all other vampire tales that followed. The first authorized movie featuring the chracter was Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi in 1931. He was also played by Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, Louis Jourdan, Klaus Kinski, Gary Oldman, and Marc Warren in later movies. Lugosi's portrayal of Dracula as a charming and erudite aristocrat is still the archtype for the character.

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The character Vampira was born when actress Maila Nurmi wore a Halloween costume modeled on a Charles Addams character (later named Morticia Addams) to a party. Nurmi was hired to host horror movies on KABC-TV in 1954. A year later, she took the show to KHJ-TV. Vampira became a local hit, then a nationwide cult celebrity. She appeared in several movies, most notably in Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space. Nurmi now runs the website Vampira's Attic.

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Barnabas Collins was the most popular character on the ABC soap opera Dark Shadows, which aired from 1966 to 1971 (also remade in 1991). The gothic series began with no supernatural elements. The vampire Barnabas Collins (played by Jonathon Frid) debuted in the second season and made the show a hit. You can see an extensive history of the character at CollinWiki. A new feature film based on Dark Shadows is in development, in which Johnny Depp will play Barnabas Collins.

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Count Chocula showed up in cereal aisles in 1971. He took the vampire back to what Halloween is really all about -sugar overload! The character craved chocolate instead of blood. Count Chocula, along with Frankenberry, were the first of General Mills' series of monster-themed cold cereals. Count Chocula has had some fame outside of the breakfast table, including a press conference related at The Onion.

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Blacula was the lead character in two "blaxploitation" films, Blacula in 1972 and Scream, Blacula, Scream in 1973. Mamuwalde, played by William Marshall, was an African prince bitten by Dracula and doomed to be a vampire (it was Count Dracula who named him Blacula). The movies are now cult classics and available on DVD.

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Elvira, Mistress of the Dark was a character played by Cassandra Peterson. She gained fame as the host of the weekly Movie Macabre on KHJ-TV in Los Angeles in the 1980s, a job turned down by Maila Nurmi. Elvira went on to guest star on TV shows, appeared in several movies, hosted a video series, and was the celebrity Halloween spokesperson for Coors beer.

Sesame Street's Count von Count taught Gen X how to count, with a weird vampire laugh thrown in with every success. He doesn't suck blood or stay inside all day, but like other vampires he isn't reflected in a mirror. He lives in a castle and counts bats, as well as anything else he encounters. Ah-ha-ha-ha!

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Lestat de Lioncourt is the main character in Anne Rice's series of novels called The Vampire Chronicles. Tom Cruise played the part in the 1994 film Interview with the Vampire. Stuart Townsend played Lestat in the 2002 film The Queen of the Damned.

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Vampire Bats are the only real vampires here. There are a thousand species of bats, but only the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) drinks the blood of other mammals to live. They are native to Latin America, only about four inches long, and feed mostly from livestock. If a vampire bat doesn't find food one night, it may ask a close relative or friend for some regurgutated blood to survive!

Vampire fans and movie buffs will also want to check out the list of The Top 70 Vampire Movies of all Time. Which vampire is your favorite?

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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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