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The Quick 10: 10 Movies Shot on Location

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There's a movie filming in town right now - it's called Smitty and stars Mira Sorvino and Peter Fonda. I'm sure you Manhattanites and Los Angeleans are quite unimpressed, but it's pretty unusual here in Des Moines. But not as unusual as it used to be - a couple of years ago Iowa approved legislation that gives tax cuts to filmmakers if they shoot on location here. I guess it worked - these days, it's not as weird as it used to be if you see Adrien Brody or Susan Sarandon wandering around town.

Anyway, we're just one of many towns to be excited when movie crews pull into town - here are 10 other fairly famous movies shot on location.

mouth1. Roman Holiday. Obviously. It would be pretty hard to make a set pass as some of those scenes, particularly the Mouth of Truth part. In case you're not familiar with the Audrey Hepburn-Gregory Peck classic, Gregory sticks his hand in the Mouth of Truth, a stone carving with an open mouth, and tells her that legend has it that liars will have their hands bitten off. He pulls his arm back and reveals that his hand is gone, and Audrey screams. He has only hidden it up his sleeve, of course. The real kicker? She didn't know that was going to happen, and her shock was genuine. That part took just one take to complete.

2. The Birds. Yep, the Bodega Bay that is taken hostage by blood-thirsty avians is a real place, right down to the cute little schoolhouse. The schoolhouse is a private residence these days, but it still looks nearly the same.

3. Deliverance. Mmm. This is one location I wouldn't want to visit. I'm sure the Chattooga River in Georgia and South Carolina offers gorgeous views of the scenery, and I've got nothing against the Sumter National Forest. I just don't think I could tramp around on a hike without looking over my shoulder for hillbillies trying to kill me. Amongst other things.

4. Groundhog Day. Oh, it was shot on location, but not where you think - certainly nowhere near Punxsutawney, Pa. It was filmed in Woodstock, Ill., chosen for its idyllic, small-town feel. The town was really excited to host the Groundhog Day production, and even put a plaque on the corner where Phil Conners steps into the mud puddle repeatedly: "Bill Murray stepped here."

5. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Like Roman Holiday, there's just no way some of that could have been faked. So, the cast and crew lived in Savannah for a while. You can even go and tour the spots mentioned in film and in the book - there's a walking tour that takes tourists to the Mercer House and through Bonaventure Cemetery, home of the famous Bird Girl statue that adorned the cover of both versions.

6. Dances with Wolves fans, boy are you in luck. The fort from the movie has not only been preserved, it's now a whole tourist attraction called the Fort Hays Chuckwagon Supper and Cowboy Music Variety Show and Dances with Wolves Film Set. But it's only the movie fort - the real fort was in Kansas. Some of it still stands, including the guardhouse and some of the officers' quarters. If you're more excited about the movie version, though, it's in Rapid City, South Dakota, just 15 minutes away from Mount Rushmore and 45 minutes from Deadwood.

MBDNOBY EC0107. Speaking of Mount Rushmore, parts of North by Northwest were actually shot on location. But probably not the part you're thinking of: the climax of the movie, the chase across the mammoth stone depictions of four of our greatest presidents, was not shot on location. Oh, Hitchcock wanted to, but the National Park Service denied his request, finding it disrepectful to shoot an attempted murder scene there (that's the fake Roosevelt in the picture). But the cafeteria scene just before, and all of the scenes shot of the parking lot - those were actually shot on location. "¨

8. The most famous films ever shot on location were probably the Lord of the Rings movies, which were, of course, shot in New Zealand. Peter Jackson wanted to go for authenticity and actually shoot in Middle-Earth, but it would have taken production costs way over budget. (Kidding.) More than 150 locations in New Zealand were used, and afterward, some areas of Tongariro National Park were damaged enough that they needed to be restored by a conservation crew.

9. Giant, the classic James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor movie, was shot in Marfa, Texas. What was unusual about this one is that the film's director encouraged citizens to come by and watch the filming or be extras or stagehands. In recent years, parts of There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men were shot in Marfa. Marfa is also known for the Marfa Lights, unexplained colored lights that appear 10-15 times a year (I smell another post...).

10. Close Encounters of the Third Kind shot on location at Devils Tower in Wyoming, despite the fact that Steven Spielberg was originally against doing any location shots. Yeah... that might have been a pretty hard set piece to construct. Although it didn't stop Hitchcock when the real Rushmore was forbidden.

Has a movie ever set up shop in your town? And has anyone ever had any luck with being an extra? Tell me about your experiences in the comments!

And thanks to Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into Hollywood for some of the on-set locations!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]