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Why We Need Horror Movies (AKA: WTF, LA?)

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So yesterday we talked about zombie movies and what makes them tick, and I learned something new about our readers: you people love the walking dead! I was expecting a few people to pipe up and argue that horror movies are disgusting and unnecessary; after all, isn't there enough pain and suffering in the world as it is? All ya gotta do is open up the newspaper, and there's your horror story! Which would've given me the opportunity to provide the counter-argument to that, which is: I think that's exactly why we need them.

Let me explain by providing a recent example from my local newspaper, the LA Times. For those of you who haven't heard (I'm not sure how far news like this travels), we've had a strange and bloody couple of weeks here in angel city:

Sunday, Feb 24: Two People Stabbed While Watching Horror Movie
This is probably my worst nightmare; I often think of how vulnerable we are in movie theaters, sitting essentially alone in the dark surrounded by strangers. (Heck, Lincoln died that way, and John Dillinger was shot and killed by police coming out of a Chicago theater where he was watching a gangster flick.) Here's the scoop:

Half an hour into "The Signal," a man seated in a back row stabbed a lone moviegoer in front of him, police said. As the victim fled, a witness told police, the man walked toward the screen and stabbed a second man. The victims apparently did not know each other or the suspect, "leading us to believe this is just a completely random assault," Basham said. At the time, there were only two moviegoers in the theater in addition to the stabber and victims, police said.

Here's the creepiest part: "After the suspect fled, Basham said, the movie resumed: It is a slasher film about a mysterious electronic signal [broadcast through TVs and radios] that compels people to kill."

Wednesday, Feb. 27: A man shoots repeatedly into a crowd
There are still plenty of gang-related shootings in South L.A., but this one most certainly stood out from the pack:

Five children and three adults were shot Wednesday afternoon by a gunman who opened fire at a busy South Los Angeles bus stop minutes after classes were dismissed at a nearby school. In a scene of chaos that authorities were still trying to piece together, witnesses described a gunman who seemingly appeared from nowhere and began spraying the crowd indiscriminately. As bystanders dived to the ground, some adults swept up children from the path of gunfire.

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As if that weren't enough ...

The article about the bus stop shooting concludes with this:

"Wednesday's violence comes after a month of high-profile shootings that began Feb. 7 when SWAT Officer Randal Simmons was killed during a siege with a San Fernando Valley man who had killed his family members. Less than a week later in Oxnard, a 15-year-old boy was shot by a classmate. In Northeast Los Angeles on Feb. 21, Avenues gang members got into a shootout with police that left two dead and paralyzed a large swath of the city for much of the day. Two days later a Yorba Linda man killed his wife and three children before turning the gun on himself. Monday night, a Baldwin Park man allegedly killed his mother and two neighbors."

What I'm getting at is this.
dahmermug.jpgApparently, I live in a city gone insane, where murderous patricidal rampages and indiscriminate killings are becoming the norm. We read about this stuff in the newspaper, and after a moment of oh, that's horrible, we turn to the comics page. It's not because we're insensitive; it's because we have no way to process or really grapple with the information we're presented with -- it just seems, in a word, evil, and beyond our comprehension, so we stop trying to comprehend it. It reminds me of the bafflement captured by Tommy Lee Jones' opening monologue in No Country for Old Men:

"The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job -- not to be glorious. But I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. You can say it's my job to fight it but I don't know what it is anymore. More than that, I don't want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard."

If sometimes life seems like a horror movie, it's one that's playing in the next house, in the next town -- you know it's going on somewhere, but statistically speaking, unless you're a gangbanger or a cop or something, you'll never be tangled up with it in any real way. So how do you deal with that creeping feeling that the world is turning evil? How do you prepare for what seems to be coming? Exorcise it? I think we tell ourselves made-up stories about evil. Ones in which we can identify with the protagonist, who's fending off hordes of zombies or staking the vampire or appeasing the ghost; our best horror movies are stories about evil that has no explanation.

jason.jpgWhen horror movies try and make sense of the motivations of the demons or serial killers who are menacing the regular folk, they get all mucked up, because we don't want to know; because the stories in the newspaper about the guy who murders his family or sprays a bus stop with his 9mm or stabs strangers in a darkened theater all seem, at their root, to be stories about evil, perpetrated by souls so twisted as to be unrecognizable. So the perpetrators in our horror movies are usually perversions of the human form: their flesh is rotted; they wear freaky masks; they are translucent and move about in an unnatural way. Because that child killer I read about can't be human -- not human the same way I am -- so our horror movie villains are not-quite-human, as well.

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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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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.

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