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5 Movies You Should See in Theaters Now

Rarely, if ever, have there been five movies in simultaneous release that I would enthusiastically recommend to anyone, even in the midst of the annual holiday slew of prestige Oscar hopefuls. This year is different.

The Wrestler

This is a rare film indeed. Written by former Onion scribe Robert Siegel, the script isn't at all what you'd expect from a comic genius: in Siegel's own words, it's "20% comedy, 80% darkness." Directed by hyperkinetic auteur Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream), it's an unusually restrained and naturalistic outing for a filmmaker known for quick cuts and visual tricks. The movie works on a curiously satisfying meta-narrative level that no one could've planned for, but worked out beautifully: it's the story of a washed-up professional wrestler called Randy "the Ram" Robinson, barely eking out a living 20 years after his prime, willing his body to continue taking punishment in the ring that it can no longer withstand because the ring is the only place the Ram feels like himself. In a bit of brilliant casting, the Ram is played by Mickey Rourke, himself a (formerly) washed-up actor, the conventional wisdom about whom is that he's 20 years past his prime, and who in the early 1990s quit acting to re-start an old career as a professional boxer. If Rouke doesn't look quite like he used to, well, neither does the Ram, and both of them have been hit in the face many, many times.

It's my favorite film of the year. Check out the trailer. Bruce Springsteen doesn't write an original song for just any old movie.

Doubt

I saw Doubt on Broadway. It was, and still is, the best play I've ever seen; critics agreed, showering it, and its star Cherry Jones, with Tony awards. (Fun fact: when Cherry came to Los Angeles, she stayed in the apartment across the hall from me. Besides being a great actress, she's an incredibly nice person.) When I heard they were making a movie of Doubt, I was skeptical that anyone, even Meryl Streep, could fill the shoes of Cherry's role the way she did. Also, filmed adaptations of theatrical productions are full of pitfalls, the most obvious one being that people sitting in a room talking for two hours tends not to be very cinematic. Though the film wasn't quite as good as the play, in my humble estimation, it was close enough; Streep's performance is powerful, if markedly different than Cherry's, and the unfancy direction doesn't get in the way of the fantastic writing. I wish there were clips of Cherry's performance on YouTube; instead, here's the trailer for the film:

Frost/Nixon

It's definitely unusual for there to be two -- good -- adaptations of Broadway productions in release at the same time. For my money, Frost/Nixon is the better of the two, largely because it retains its Broadway cast in the filmed adaptation. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella play David Frost and Richard Nixon, respectively, who met for an astounding 30 hours' worth of interviews not long after Nixon left office. It was billed as "the trial Nixon never got." Going in, I had no idea how director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan (who wrote the play as well as 2006's The Queen) were going to make a movie about two people sitting in chairs opposite one another interesting -- but it was riveting. The stakes couldn't have been higher: Nixon was defending his reputation, and Frost, a popular talk show host who had never been taken seriously in journalistic circles, staked his entire career on the gambit. The performances are amazing, the story fascinating and, always a bonus for flossy moviegoers like myself, it's all true.

Slumdog Millionaire

A fascinating hybrid of genres and cultures, Slumdog is based on an Indian novel, directed with great flair by Englishman Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later), shot in English and Hindi and set in colorful, rollicking Mumbai. It's the story of a street kid from Mumbai named Jamal who, at the beginning of the movie, is being tortured by a TV producer who suspects he cheated on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? Jamal swears he hasn't cheated, and tells the amazing story of his life in flashbacks as he explains to the producer how he knew the answer to every question on the show. It's a great story with an amazing structure, executed perfectly. It'll certainly be in contention for some Oscars this year -- see it!

Milk

I think the Best Actor Oscar this year is going to be a dead heat between Mickey Rourke, for his impressive return to form in The Wrestler, and Sean Penn, for his lively, heartbreaking turn as murdered activist and politician Harvey Milk. Fans of the blog may know Harvey Milk best from his association with the notorious "Twinkie defense" -- lawyers for Milk's assassin, fellow San Fransisco Supervisor Dan White, got his sentence reduced from murder to involuntary manslaughter by noting that the normally health-conscious White had not been himself before the killings, and had taken to drinking great volumes of Coca-cola and eating junk food. Also, in another example of meta-narrative magic, Milk was released just as California's prop 8 controversy was heating up, making much of the film's 70s-era fight for gay rights seem downright contemporary.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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