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7 Movie Stars Who Really Were Heroes

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For over a century, movie stars have brought countless screen heroes to life "“ but of course, there has usually been a slight gap between the actors and the heroes they played. Yes, we know that a third of Angelina Jolie's income goes to charity, that Sean Penn took a canoe to help Hurricane Katrina victims, and that Tom Cruise once stopped to help a hit-and-run victim and paid her hospital bills. Nonetheless, most famous actors have been normal people like everyone else. But just so you don't lose your faith in movie stars, here are some who actually were heroic.

1. Marion Davies

Much as we admire the charitable acts of Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and others, Marion Davies was the pioneer. Best remembered as the lover of media baron William Randolph Hearst, this silent movie comedienne was also described by one Hearst biographer as "one of the most generous and warm-hearted women alive," known in Hollywood for her personal kindness and her work with several charities. In the 1920s and 1930s she treated underprivileged children in Los Angeles to a Christmas circus on the MGM studio lot (providing them with gifts, and food baskets to their families, at her own expense). During World War II she emptied her living room, had sewing machines installed and arranged teams of Hollywood wives to sew bandages. She also paid the hospital bills of sick children, and even today many people owe their lives to her. Admirably, most of her good deeds were not well-known at the time; they were acts of kindness, not publicity stunts.

2. Florence Lawrence

The world's first movie star (or at least, the first one whose name had marquee value), Florence Lawrence also appears in our list of actors who made a difference for her prowess as a part-time inventor. Her film career, however, ended after a studio fire in 1915, while trying to rescue someone from the flames. Her courageous act caused her to fall and suffer a back injury. This kept her out of the movies for a year, but she returned to make her first feature film. Sadly, the strain of her injury took its toll and she was paralyzed for four months. By the time she attempted a return to the screen in 1921, at the age of 35, she had already been forgotten by the public. Losing her fortune after the 1929 stock-market crash, and in chronic pain, she committed suicide in 1938.

3. Brigitte Helm

helmAnother silent movie star "“ but one who is still familiar to many young film buffs, thanks to one role: Maria, the world's sexiest robot woman, in Fritz Lang's 1926 German masterpiece Metropolis. This role made her a star at 19, and though you probably can't name a single one of her later films, she became the great statuesque beauty of Germany's silent cinema "“ and Hitler's ideal Aryan woman. However, she refused to make any more movies when the Nazis took over the film industry. Unlike many other German filmmakers, fleeing Nazi Germany, she didn't move to Hollywood in the 1930s. Instead, to really get up the Fuhrer's nose, she briefly married a Jew "“ and was found guilty of "race defilement," which ended her short-but-dazzling film career overnight. She defiantly stayed in Germany until 1935, then moved to neutral Switzerland. (She was tough, not suicidal.)

4. Paul Robeson

robesonThis important actor "“ famous for his powerful bass singing voice (his version of "Old Man River" in the 1936 movie version of Show Boat, is still considered the best) "“ must rank as one of the most amazing people to ever work in Hollywood. Valedictorian at Rutgers University, politician, elite player of at least four sports, the first African-American to be named a college football All-American, the first black actor to play Othello on-stage (in London, 1930), fluent in over 20 languages"¦ but most importantly, a voice against discrimination. As one of most respected African-Americans of the 1930s and 1940s, he had great box-office appeal. Nonetheless, he publicly quit movies in 1942, unhappy with Hollywood's portrayals of African-Americans. (Though he lived another 34 years, he never made another movie.)

Robeson continued to speak out for racial equality, alienating himself from some white Americans. He also visited the Soviet Union, believing that their socialist ideology might be a solution (though he slowly became disillusioned with this idea). As the Cold War deepened, he was marked as a Communist, and his passport was revoked. Although this embittered him, he did not renounce his American citizenship, and remained a symbol of pride for many African-Americans. Years before Martin Luther King revealed his dream, Robeson's speeches had their own rousing sentiments: "My weapons are peaceful, for it is only by peace that peace can be attained. The song of freedom must prevail."

5. Jimmy Stewart

jimmy_LIFEWhen John Wayne and Errol Flynn tried to enlist in World War II, they were deemed unfit for combat. Instead, they played several military heroes, inspiring the audiences at home. Jimmy Stewart, meanwhile, is perhaps best known for two roles: the hero of It's a Wonderful Life (who, due to partial deafness, is also unfit for combat) and the lead character of Vertigo (who suffers from a fear of heights).

The real-life Stewart had no such issues. He was the first Hollywood star to sign up for the war, the highest-ranked (Colonel), and the most decorated (including the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Croix de Guerre and seven battle stars). He did this to serve his country; he found no joy in killing, or in watching his friends die. Disturbed by the memories, he rarely mentioned the war. When he returned, he made fewer of the wholesome, light-hearted roles that had won him his reputation, in favor of darker fare.

6. Audrey Hepburn

Apart from being the epitome of Hollywood style, Audrey Hepburn is also admired by her many fans because of her childhood struggles in Nazi-occupied Holland, where she ate tulip bulbs to survive, and witnessed Nazi soldiers executing people on the streets and herding Jews into railway cars. Despite suffering from malnutrition and depression, she became a volunteer nurse and eventually worked for the Dutch Underground. She was an inspiring and powerful lady, even decades before her tireless work as a UNICEF ambassador.

7. Christopher Reeve

Reeve was best-known for playing Superman, the most robust superhero of the movies. This led to super-typecasting. How can any role surpass the so-called "greatest of all heroes"? Sadly, Reeve himself did not share Superman's invincibility. In a 1995 horse-riding accident, he was paralyzed from the neck down. Though he was not expected to survive, he became a powerful advocate for people with spinal injuries. With his courage and determination, he easily outclassed his greatest movie role, even appearing on the cover of Time magazine, which dubbed him "Super Man." It's fine being a tough guy if you're bulletproof and super-strong, but if you can fight for a cause as a quadriplegic"¦ now that's heroism.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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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.”