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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.