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6 Dangerous Stunts of the Silent Movie Era

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Silent movie comedy was all about slapstick and sight gags. Slipping on banana peels, falling from moving cars, teetering on high window ledges—audiences loved to see comedians testing the boundaries of gravity. And in an era long before CGI, these amazing feats were performed in real-time, the result of careful planning, physical skill and immense courage.

1. Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

After being blown around by a cyclone in this film, a dazed Buster Keaton stops in the middle of a street to catch his breath. As he stares unblinking at the camera, the front wall of a two-story house crashes down on him. But he escapes unhurt because his body is perfectly framed by an open window. Eighty years on, it still looks impossible. And dangerous. The 4,000-lb. house front was on a hinge, and Keaton drove a nail in the ground to mark his position. The window was just big enough to give him two inches of clearance on either side. Minutes before shooting, Keaton noticed a few crew members praying. He also saw the cameraman turn away as the shot rolled. Buster later called the stunt one of his “greatest thrills,” then added, “I was mad at the time, or I would never have done the thing.”

2. Dick Grace in Wings (1927)

Stuntman Dick Grace called himself “a crack-up engineer.” As an Army pilot in World War I, he honed the skills that made him Hollywood’s go-to guy for aerial stunts.

In Wings, he hung from a rope ladder out of a cockpit and crashed several planes into barren fields and lakes. His secret? Aside from crazy courage, Grace sawed wings and aircraft parts into break-away sections to soften the blow upon impact. He also wore a spring-loaded shock absorber belt extending from his backside to his armpits. Wings won the first Oscar for Best Picture, and though Grace broke his neck during the shoot, he went on to form his own movie stunt troop, called The Squadron Of Death.

3. Yakima Canutt in Devil Horse (1926)

Former rodeo star Yakima Canutt never met a bronco he couldn’t bust. Or so he thought. In this western, he goes mano-a-mane-o with Rex, a vicious black stallion who’d already killed a man in another film. The ride was so wild that Canutt had the horse’s wranglers tie his wrists and ankles around Rex’s neck and torso. He still got tossed, and in one scene, it’s clear that Rex is trying to stamp Canutt straight into cowboy heaven. A few of the action scenes were so thrilling, they were later used as stock footage for numerous other westerns. Over the next thirty years, Canutt was Hollywood’s first-call stunt cowpoke, leaping off horses and getting dragged through the sagebrush. But he never rode Rex again.

4. Harold Lloyd in Safety Last (1923)

It’s probably the most famous image of the silent era. A pasty-faced, bespectacled young man dangling from the minute hand of an enormous clock twelve stories above a city street. For years, it was thought that comedian Harold Lloyd made the dizzying ascent by himself. But after Lloyd’s death in 1970, stuntman Harvey Parry revealed that he had handled most of the really treacherous parts – the flips and near-falls. As for the clock scene, a set replicating the building’s top two floors was constructed on the roof of the actual building, with mattresses laid down in case Lloyd fell the twenty feet or so. Cameras were cleverly angled to show the street below. Though Lloyd certainly had help, his classic scene continues to make time stand still, figuratively and literally, for generations of movie fans.

5. Four stuntmen in The Trail Of ’98 (1928)

This adventure tale of gold rush prospectors in Canada proved that sometimes even the most intrepid stuntmen were no match for Mother Nature. For a scene where prospectors’ canoes are swept down the wild Yukon River, a cord with safety loops was strung across the river. The stuntmen were meant to grab on to the loops as they jumped from the boats. But when the cord got too knotted and icy to hold, four stuntmen were swallowed by the rapids and killed. Two of the bodies were never recovered. A note of trivia: comedy legend Lou Costello of Abbott & Costello-fame made his first film appearance in this movie, as a stuntman.

6. Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936)

In one famous scene from this satirical comedy, Chaplin’s character the Little Tramp roller skates blindfolded backwards and forwards around the fourth floor of a department store, spinning ever closer to the edge of a balcony with no balustrade. The stunt was achieved with a technique called a “glass shot.” The deep drop-off to the department store’s lower floors was actually painted on a pane of glass, placed in front of the camera and perfectly aligned with the real setting, creating a seamless illusion. But Chaplin’s skating was no trick. It was one of the many skills he’d picked up during days in Vaudeville. For further proof, check out 1916’s classic short The Rink, in which Chaplin performs a ten-minute slapstick ballet on wheels.

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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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