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7 Reasons "Clone Wars" Will Be Worth Seeing

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The latest Star Wars movie, Clone Wars, opens this Friday. We've done our homework on the new movie, and it actually looks pretty good. As the seventh movie in the epic series, we turned up seven reasons why Clone Wars will be worth seeing.

1. No More Hayden Christensen!

Many Star Wars fans found Hayden Christensen's portrayal of Anakin at turns wooden and whiny. In Clone Wars, the voice of Anakin is taken over by Matt Lanter (probably best known for his role as the evil quarterback Brody from TV's Heroes). Familiar returning voices include Samuel L. Jackson (as Mace), Christopher Lee (as Dooku), and good old Anthony Daniels (as C3PO). Unfortunately we don't get to hear from Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan -- he's been replaced by James Arnold Taylor, a voice actor with a resume a mile long, including the voice of Obi-Wan in the Clone Wars animated shorts, and the voice of Ratchet from the Ratchet & Clank games.

As far as I'm concerned, less Hayden Christensen means more awesome.

2. Awesome Anime-Inspired Art

Pointy Obi-Wan BeardThe look of Clone Wars borrows heavily from anime, depicting characters with stylized, chiseled faces, huge eyes, and angular bodies. Count Dooku's face is comically elongated, and it looks like you could grate cheese on Obi-Wan's pointy, multi-segmented beard. But aside from that, the move to full animation from the "greenscreen extravaganza" of the last three films solves a crucial problem: we no longer have that sense of creepy fakeness that comes from mixing live action and computer-generated effects (see: the uncanny valley). In Clone Wars, everything's an effect, and the look hangs together better precisely because of its distinctive style.

The full animation look also frees up moviemakers to invent some insane battle sequences, including one in which the Jedi warriors and AT-TE walkers walk up a cliff during the fight. Another epic (though brief) battle scene has Anakin jumping from speeder to speeder in mid-air, cutting down droids.

3. Clone/Droid Carnage Galore

The Clone Wars are unique in Star Wars mythology because they were fought by the eponymous clones, versus a bunch of strangely fragile droids (probably shoulda up-armored those guys, eh?). Although the clones are portrayed as super-soldiers (they're all Jango Fetts, after all), we get to see legions of them cut down by droids -- and vice versa. And who doesn't love a little droid-on-clone violence? Part of the fun of Clone Wars is in seeing how many clones and droids we can blow away in each battle.

Clones with fancy hair-dosAmidst the carnage, we'll get to see more individuation among the clones. A major character this time is Clone Commander Rex, leader of the 501st Clone Trooper Legion. Rex is Anakin's second in command during the Clone Wars, and although he's a clone, he's also an individual. Other clones are shown with tattoos and an almost comic array of hair styles and colors. Check out the videos "The Clones are Coming" and "Clone Wars Clip: Battle of Christophsis" on the the official site (click on "Videos" at the top, then pick your clip at the right) for a taste.

Kids take note: you can get tips on drawing "Captain Rex" from Star Wars illustrator Grant Gould. Check it out. (Seriously.)

4. Jabba's Southern Uncle

Hutt concept artEarly reviews have mentioned an intriguing new character: Jabba's uncle Ziro the Hutt, whom David German of the AP described as "a giant slug that speaks with a Truman Capote-like Southern drawl." Um. Awesome? Although information about this guy is slim, Wookieepedia has a page on Ziro (warning: includes a minor spoiler related to action in Clone Wars), which includes some biographical info:

Starting out as a loan shark on Sleheyron, Ziro moved to Coruscant to pursue a bigger career. He eventually became a vigo of the criminal organization Black Sun, and had a tattoo of its symbol. He used a rundown tower that used to belong to the Lantillian Spacers' Brotherhood as his personal base. The tower was transformed into a gaudy-looking pleasure palace.

All I'm gonna say is, I have to see Truman Capote's Pleasure Palace at least once in my life. After that, I'm cool with finding a new definition of pain and suffering as I'm slowly digested over a thousand years.

5. It's Actually Funny

Didst Thou Fart?Although you can't tell it from the trailers, early reviewers have commented on the amount of humor in the movie. Some reviewers have even gone so far as to call Clone Wars a spoof, or a parody of Star Wars -- and I think that's a good thing. Much of the fun of the first three Star Wars films came from Han Solo's wisecracks. This character (and his sense of humor) are completely lacking in the latter three films, replaced with absurdly over-the-top, possibly-racist slapstick (I don't think I have to name names here); brooding and smoldering and whining (Anakin); and some "nice try" droid humor from C3PO and R2D2. In Clone Wars we can expect at least a return to the freewheeling '70s vision of Star Wars, where swashbuckling swordplay meets crazy high/low-tech hybrid technology on the battlefield, mixed with a healthy dose of family-friendly comedy.

6. A Female Main Character Who Fights

Ahsoka, the new PadawanClone Wars introduces Ahsoka Tano, Anakin's new Padawan. If there's one thing Star Wars has been sorely lacking, it's female characters who actually take part in the battle sequences. Sure, Princess Leia and Padme have been known to use a blaster in a pinch, but Ahsoka is actually on the battlefield, in the thick of things. Will this character bring girls to the Star Wars franchise? I guess we'll find out on Friday.

In many ways Ahsoka is standing in for the previous Star Wars Padawans (Luke in the early films, then Anakin in the prequels), so there are bound to be a few Padawan Moments -- which in the world of Star Wars means some kiddy whining followed by Important Lessons -- but it's encouraging to see a female warrior taking the stage after thirty years of male-dominated action sequences.

7. George Lucas Didn't Write, Direct, or Produce It

George Lucas - Nope!What a relief! Of course Lucas's fingerprints are all over this film (he kinda invented the franchise), but officially he doesn't get any of the key production credits. Director Dave Filoni seems squarely in charge of this one, and Indiana Jones hat notwithstanding, I think we're all glad to let others take the reins and bring a fresh perspective to the Star Wars universe. Clone Wars writers include Henry Gilroy (who has worked on lots of animated shows, including The Tick), Scott Murphy (whose IMDB page is slim, though he wrote two episodes of Angel and worked as an uncredited production assistant on Boogie Nights), and Steven Melching (who has done a ton of TV animation, and was a production assistant on 1991's House Party 2). While these may not be the most prestigious writers on the block, at least they're not George.

To Find Out More...

Watch the trailer in HD or check out the official site -- the latter actually has a bunch of good videos, although watching director Dave Filoni introduce the videos while wearing his Indiana Jones hat is a little disconcerting.

To whet your appetite, starting Friday you can grab a Clone Wars themed Happy Meal from McDonald's (the toy is -- no kidding -- a Clone Wars Bobble Head with a character's head attached to a vehicle). If you need something now, pick up some of the new toys and other merchandise. Unfortunately you'll have to wait until November before the Nintendo games (Lightsaber Duels for Wii and Jedi Alliance for DS) are released.

Did we leave something out? Share your hopes, fears, and critiques in the comments.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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