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What a Blockbuster Movie Can Do to a Small Town

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What if a story about your little hometown became extremely popular and brought visitors from all over the world seeking a piece of it? When a book or movie puts a quiet little town on the map, you have to expect people will want to come and see it. Whether that's a benefit or curse may depend on the movie.

Forks, Washington

Some towns revel in the notoriety that comes with a movie. Thousands of fans make their way to Forks, Washington (population 3,221) every month to enjoy the atmosphere of the setting for the Twilight books and movies. Local businesses have erected signs referring to the movies. The principal of Forks High School says the school has designated lockers for the characters Edward and Bella -for the benefit of the tourists. Sales of Twilight merchandise and tourist services have energized the small town that once depended on logging for its economy. Even those residents who don't like the books welcome the money the tourists bring in.

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The Forks Chamber of Commerce website has an entire section on Twilight, including a map of "points of interest", and (of course), an online store where you can buy a "New Moon Over Forks" sweatshirt for only $40. Last summer, Forks hosted an event called Summer School in Forks: A "Twilight" Symposium at Forks High School. The ultimate event of the symposium was a prom featuring Twilight cast member look-alikes. Twilight has been good for business since the first book was published.

Burkittsville, Maryland

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The residents of Burkettsville, Maryland (population 171) have mixed feelings about the movie that put them on the map. The Blair Witch Project was released in 1999 and promoted as a documentary, although it was a work of fiction. The city website urges visitors to:

Please understand, while the town of Burkittsville is real, the movie is just that, a movie. The legend is a fake. True, there is a dark, dense woods to the west of town, but most people are convinced there is no Stick Manchild-stealing witch inhabiting those woods.. Burkittsville is a small, sleepy, historic village nestled between two Civil War battlefields in central Maryland. Yet Burkittsville is visited annually by thousands of movie and witchcraft fans -- just wanting to "see" for themselves. It is a pretty town (pictures), it is an historic town, but it is not haunted town. Hmmmmm...what about all of those spirits from the nearby battlefields?

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The success of the movie brought sudden and unexpected notoriety to Bukittsville. The town signs were stolen over and over again, and the cemetery was vandalized. Even now, tourists are warned that the locals might not be welcoming. However, money talks. Even as it steers you away from believing what is depicted in the movie, Burkittsville invites you to shop there for Halloween costumes and explore the local businesses that cater to witch-hunting tourists.

Amityville, New York

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Amityville, New York is famous twice for horrifying stories. In 1974, Ronald DeFeo, Jr. killed six members of his family in the house at 112 Ocean Avenue. The same house later became the subject of the 1979 movie The Amityville Horror. The movie was not about the murders, but about the ghosts that remained behind in the home to haunt the new owners, George and Kathleen Lutz. The movie and the 1977 book it was based on, The Amityville Horror - A True Story, were promoted as a real-life account of paranormal phenomenon. Eight other movies followed. The publicity surrounding the book and movie brought tons of tourists into Amityville, much more so than the DeFeo murders. People pulled shingles off the roof of the house and destroyed the yard as they marched through uninvited, upsetting Barbara Crowmarty, the next homeowner. She estimated 5,000 people came to her home in one month. Her neighbors were also upset. Souvenir-seekers grabbed parts of their homes as well!
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Much of the anger of the Amityville residents came from the Lutz's claim that the haunting was a true story. As years passed, those claims fell apart. A friend of George Lutz who was also Ronald DeFeo Jr's lawyer admitted he helped concoct the story. None of the subsequent owners of the home experienced any unusual or paranormal events. Several times the idea of turning the house into a bed and breakfast was turned down by the village council. In the years since The Amityville Horror, the house address has been changed, and the home was remodeled to make it less recognizable as the haunted house in the movie. And that's the way Amityville residents want it.

What causes such a difference in the way small towns react to the notoriety a film brings? The three towns here are much too small of a sample to draw any conclusions. It could be the suddenness of the onslaught, or the behavior of tourists, or the need for the economic boost tourism brings. It very well could be the amount of controversy that surrounds the film. Amityville had to deal with thousands of people who believed the house was truly haunted, on top of the tragedy of the earlier murders of a local family. In the case of Burkittsville, a large part of the audience was skeptical of The Blair Witch Project's documentary marketing stunt, which the film makers didn't bother to defend. After all, the students who disappeared during the movie later gave interviews about it. Forks, Washington has no need to correct tourists' perceptions, as there are no claims that vampires actually go to high school there. If the locals can have some fun with their notoriety and make a profit, it's all good -as long as the tourists behave themselves.

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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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