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Before They Came to America: Giants of Hong Kong Cinema

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A niche knowledge and passion of mine is Hong Kong cinema, most specifically the Gun Fu films (you read that right) of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It disturbs me when my friends lament over a bust like Rush Hour 3, snooze off during Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or roll their eyes at Windtalkers, not because I disagree with their take on these films, but because it saddens me that the luminary stars or directors "“ Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, and director John Woo, respectively "“ are no longer getting the respect they deserve. With that in mind, I want to give three of my favorite Hong Kong boys their due.

Jackie Chan

You probably know Jackie Chan as the lovable and goofy martial artist who teams up with Americans for fast-paced action thrillers (as well as a man who has perfected the art of the blooper reel). But did you know that Chan was set up to be the next Bruce Lee? Rigorously trained in martial arts, music, and dance, the young Jackie Chan had bit roles in several Bruce Lee films before Lee's untimely death. Afterwards, Chan was seen as the natural substitute for Lee, except that young Jackie did not want to spend his career in Lee's shadow. Instead, he formulated his own brand of entertainment "“ that which combined humor and martial arts.

A fan of American slap-stick comedians such as Buster Keaton, Chan worked hard to make a name for himself, often performing his own stunts (which puts him as Enemy Number 1 on insurance company's lists). Sure, he still plays smiling, goofy good-guys in his American films, but his extraordinary martial arts work developed in his early days of Hong Kong cinema is worth noting, especially because it infused a humor that sought to take Kung Fu a little less seriously. Check out this compilation video, made from my favorite Chan film, 1978's "Drunken Master." It highlights his signature move "“ the manipulation of objects around him (tea cups, poles, water jugs), as well as his top-notch martial arts skills and inclination for downing plenteous amounts of liquid courage.

Chow Yun Fat

Before the Chow Yun Fat of Bulletproof Monk and Pirates of the Caribbean, there was Chow Yun Fat ... romance star? Prior to being cast ironically in action films by directors like John Woo and Ringo Lam, Chow was a romantic leading man in Hong Kong cinema. But, as his characters increasingly gained a penchant for wielding double Beretta 92s to serve their justice whilst sporting sunglasses at night with toothpicks gritted in their teeth, Chow became the quintessential Hong Kong action hero. In fact, Chow became such a huge action star that hordes of young men began dressing up like one of his most famous characters, Mark Gor from Better Tomorrow, a trend parodied in this clip from its sequel, "A Better Tomorrow 2," where Chow returns, without narrative apology, as the slain Mark's twin brother.

The clip ends with one of Chow's most passionate and beloved scenes from Gun-Fu cinema, giving us the obscure t-shirt slogan "Respect the Rice." Speaking of respect, if you're a fan of this genre and don't mind copious amounts of arterial spray, the final scene from the movie is considered one of the bloodiest ever - but also one of the greatest - in action history.

John Woo

Likely familiar are John Woo's American works such as Face/Off, Mission Impossible II and Broken Arrow (OK, maybe not that last one). But what about the films that made Woo an internationally innovative force? A great deal (though admittedly, not all) of American action cinema is constricted to very obvious convention, perhaps based on an assumption that viewers are solely interested in explosion rather than dramatic content. Sure, we all love a little Bay and Bruckheimer, but in his early films, John Woo perfected something deeper than the buddy-cop bond and the arbitrary love plot. Something far more visceral to which Hollywood has never fully allowed him to return "“ the concept of Heroic Bloodshed. Perhaps it came from one of the more interesting aspects of Hong Kong cinema itself "“ its palpable sense of urgency. Films made in the late 1980s and early 1990s often had nihilistic or despondent themes (see: the filmography of Won Kar-Wai) inspired by the country's looming return to China in 1997. One of the best films of the prolific Woo-Chow collaboration, and possibly Woo's last great Hong Kong film, is 1989's The Killer (originally titled, in Chinese, Bloodshed of Two Heroes). The film's fusion of Kung Fu and gun fighting is inspirational, but the heart of the film lies in the relationship between an assassin looking for one last hit, and the inspector looking to bring him down. Not as conventional as you might expect. Watch the trailer and judge for yourself!

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]