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Happy Birthday Hitch! 4 Alfred Hitchcock Secrets

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Today's Alfred Hitchcock's birthday. But between all the international invasions, record breaking sports events, and alleged love childs of politicians, no one seems to be giving the Master of Suspense any love. Here are 4 things everyone ought to know about Hitch.

1. He had lots of phobias (including eggs and jail cells!)

Hitchcock had a lot of fears. The most unusual of these phobias was probably his fear of breakfast foods. More specifically: chicken eggs. The oozy yellow yolks, specifically, freaked him out. He once said,

I'm frightened of eggs, worse than frightened, they revolt me. That white round thing without any holes . . . have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid? Blood is jolly, red. But egg yolk is yellow, revolting. I've never tasted it."

His daughter, though, said that he was known to enjoy a good soufflé. Oddly enough, Hitchcock also disliked police, most likely due to a childhood encounter he had with them.

His dad thought it would be good to teach him a lesson and sent him down to the local police station with a note in hand. He gave the note to the cop on duty, who read it and promptly locked little Hitch in the jail cell for 10 minutes. Later in life, he said the reason he never learned to drive was because he was so afraid of being pulled over by a policeman. But this may not have been true "“ other accounts say that he drove his daughter to school and church on numerous occasions.

2. He was one of the first to make cameo appearances

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Sir Hitchcock has 52 major films that have survived (one of his silent films from 1927 has been lost) and he makes cameo appearances in 37 of them. They are always extremely tiny parts "“ sometimes he's even just in crowd shot. Even in Lifeboat, which took place entirely on, yes, a lifeboat, he manages to show up: he appears in a newspaper ad for a weight loss product. Hitchcock struggled with his weight all of his life and had recently dropped quite a few pounds, so he used an older picture as the "before" shot and a current picture as the "after" shot. Lifeboat, by the way, holds the record for the smallest movie set ever.

Other directors that now pop up in their own films include Peter Jackson, Eli Roth, M. Night Shyamalan and Edgar Wright. Of course, there are lots of other directors who give themselves large parts in their own films, not just cameos: Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, to name a few. Eventually, Hitchcock tried to get his cameos out of the way as early in the movie as possible "“ he felt that when viewers spent too much of the film trying to spot him in the background, it took away from the movie experience.

3. He popularized the MacGuffin

You might not know what the MacGuffin is by name, but you certainly know it: it's something used in a plot that helps to advance the story, but doesn't really matter for any other reason than to advance the story. For instance, Harrison Ford once told David Letterman that all of the objects in the Indiana Jones movies are basically MacGuffins. Yeah, they might have been searching for the Crystal Skull in the most recent one, but it doesn't really matter what they were searching for. All the object did was advance the storyline and allow Indiana Jones to have some adventures. The objects Harrison Ford mentioned were the Holy Grail in the last movie and the Sankara Stones in Temple of Doom. Sometimes, though, we don't even know what the MacGuffin is "“ like in Pulp Fiction, the MacGuffin is the unknown contents of the briefcase. We don't even know what's in there, but it's central to the whole storyline.

Anyway, Hitch used the concept in his 1935 film The 39 Steps and used the term, which may have been coined by a friend of his. "MacGuffin" has been common industry lingo ever since.

4. He tried to hide Cary Grant in Lincoln's Nose

north Lots of Hitchcock's films feature famous landmarks, although not always in the way he would have liked to use them. In North by Northwest, the climactic scene happens on Mount Rushmore. He wanted Cary Grant to hide out in Lincoln's nose, but have his pursuants discover him when he sneezes. Park officials refused to let this scene be filmed, finding it disrespectful. Supposedly, though, someone asked Hitch how he would feel if the situation was reversed and Lincoln was having a sneezing fit in the nostril of a giant likeness of Cary Grant. Apparently this made sense to him and he gave up trying to have the sneezing scene shot. Other appearances by landmarks are scattered throughout his movies - in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the climatic scene takes place at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Vertigo involves a scene at the Golden Gate Bridge and an important moment at Mission San Juan Bautista. Blackmail features the dome of the British Museum. Saboteur revolves around the Boulder Dam (which is now the Hoover Dam), Rockefeller Center and the Statue of Liberty.

If you haven't figured it out, we absolutely love Alfred Hitchcock in my house. In fact, he is probably the reason I like horror movies with a darkly wry sense of humor, We have movie posters of Rear Window and Vertigo framed in our living room. My husband is researching getting some sort of a Hitchcock-related tattoo. Yeah, we have a problem. Got any great Hitchcock facts that need to be shared, or Hitchcock obsessive behavior you'd like to own up to? We'd love to hear it in the comments below.

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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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