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4 Fictional Apocalypses That Shattered the Box Office

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Whether it's an alien attack in the 1953 adaptation of War of the Worlds, waves of famished George Romero-style zombies or blindness-inducing killer plants in the 1962 cheez-fest Day of the Triffids, moviegoers have always loved watching the world be reduced to rubble -- and discovering the grim new reality that rises from its ashes. Let's take a look at four end-of-days flicks that destroyed more than the world -- but box office records, as well.

1. Independence Day

independence_day_ver3.jpgReleased on July 2, 1996, Independence Day grossed a whopping $816,969,268 worldwide, which at the time made it the second highest-grossing film ever. Legend has it that director Roland Emmerich conceived of the film while on a press tour for his 1994 sci-fi blockbuster, Stargate, when producer Dean Devlin wondered aloud why the aliens in Stargate would've traveled light years from their world just to hide in ours. Why are the aliens in movies always lurking in cornfields and barns and the middle of remote desert testing facilities, they wondered? According to the DVD commentary, Devlin asked a report to imagine "what it would be like to wake up one morning and discover that 15-mile-wide spaceships were hovering over the largest cities in the world" -- and that was the birth of the idea for Independence Day.


While not exactly wowing the critics (Kenneth Turan dubbed it "The Day the Script Stood Still"), audiences couldn't part with their money fast enough. It was the highest-grossing film of 1996, breaking Jurassic Park's then three-year-old record. Critics did give it props for its amazing special effects sequences, however, and even Turan wrote that the movie did "an excellent job conveying the boggling immensity of [the] extraterrestrial vehicles [...] and panic in the streets" and the scenes of the alien attack were "disturbing, unsettling and completely convincing." It won an Oscar for visual effects.

Of course, impending doom is a great excuse to give inspirational speeches, and Bill Pullman's in Independence Day ranks with the best of 'em (in the cheesiest sense imaginable):

2. I Am Legend

This is a movie with quite a pedigree: the original novel by Richard Matheson ranks among the greats of sci-fi literature, and is one of the first in which a plague of zombies destroys the world as we know it. It was adapted to film three times: as 1964's The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, in 1971 as The Omega Man with Charlton Heston and in 2007 as the Will Smith starrer I Am Legend.

I have a particular fondness for its most recent filmic incarnation (save its off-key ending) -- especially the first act, which explores in gritty, hyper-realistic detail the landscape of an empty, gone-to-seed Manhattan. (I was reminded of the book The World Without Us, which points out that in just a matter of months, NYC's subways would flood, collapsing the streets above them and creating rivers where, say, Lexington Avenue used to be. Jungle would reclaim much of the city within a few decades.)

Add to that mix a healthy colony of robust, sunlight-hating vampiric zombies, and I'm a kid in a cinematic candy shop. Other moviegoers clearly felt the same way: earning some $584 million worldwide, it's one of the top 50 highest-grossing films of all time. Rumor has it that a sequel is in the works, with a release slated for 2011.

Just for the sake of comparison, here's the trailer for the 1964 version:

... and the 1971 version:

... and the 2007 version:

3. War of the Worlds

Speaking of adaptations and remakes, few stories have been told as many times, or as many ways, as War of the Worlds. H.G. Wells' 1898 science fiction novel has been adapted no fewer than twenty-two times, as a radio play, a film, a staged musical, a TV series, a cartoon, a comic book, a board game, a theatrical production and even a series of trading cards. In addition, a number of authors have written unauthorized sequels, including more than one positing the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson during the alien invasion of London.

Some think that Wells' story tapped into pre-WWI paranoia about invading armies -- but rather than soldiers of the terrestrial, European type marching through the streets of foreign cities, Wells conjured a race of highly-evolved blood-sucking Martians. Ironically, they could wipe out thousands of Earthlings at a time while sustaining relatively few casualties themselves, but it was a tiny bacterium -- an alien pathogen -- against which they could not defend. If that sounds familiar to students of colonial history, it should -- aliens rampaging through the streets of London could easily have been inspired by European army regiments machine-gunning columns of spear-armed Africans -- and then succumbing to malaria or yellow fever. Wells himself broaches this theme in his introduction to the book:

And before we judge [the Martians] too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished Bison and the Dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

Steven Spielberg's 2005 film adaptation was received in a generally positive light, raking in $591,745,540 worldwide to make it the fourth highest-grossing film of its year. Its opening weekend tally of $65 million was a record for studio Paramount -- and a personal best for star Tom Cruise.

Check out this trailer for the 1953 film adaptation, the narration of which makes it sound like a movie about a Nazi invasion: "a super-race from Mars!" ... "is there nothing that man stop the alien death machine?!"

4. 28 Days Later

28 Days may not have shattered the box office in a traditional sense, but considering it cost less than $10 million to make, its $82 million take was a stunning success. It still ranks as one of the most viscerally scary films I've seen, and the realism with which they were able to create an eerie, almost-deserted London -- on a tiny budget -- is amazing.

Also amazing is the fact that it was shot primarily on consumer-grade Canon XL1 video cameras -- one of which I owned at the time -- giving it a gritty realism which works perfectly for the subject matter (and certainly helped keep costs down). It also reinvented the zombie film, which previously had been the province of slow-moving, dim-witted George Romero-type zombies, who could be picked off like cattle in a field and were only dangerous in close quarters or great numbers. Days' zombies were motion-blur fast, savage, and their insane, berserker-style behavior was itself viscerally frightening in a way that made the old-school zombies seem like bedtime story characters.

Another primary difference between Days and other zombie films: this wasn't a zombie apocalypse, it was a viral apocalypse; it played on the new paranoia of the 21st century, when we were just starting to get used to terms like "ebola" and "H5N1 virus." These infected zombies don't even have to bite you to do you in -- just a drop of their blood or saliva will do the trick just as well, both of which they're constantly spattering around in liberal quantities.

Frightening indeed. Enjoy the NSFW trailer:

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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