CLOSE
Original image

Why the CIA got in the Animated Film Business (and other D.C.-Hollywood Tales)

Original image

Thanks to a request from Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the Department of Defense and CIA have officially opened an investigation into Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the killing of Osama bin Laden. King and others were concerned that the White House had leaked classified information to the filmmakers for the movie and wanted the CIA on the case.

But it’s far from the first time the government -- or the CIA itself – has gotten involved in the film industry. The FBI has a healthy track record of investigating actors, executives and even individual movies. For example, consider their response to the Steve McQueen heist film "The Thomas Crown Affair." When producers of the film -- then titled The Crown Caper -- asked to use an exterior shot of the agency's Boston headquarters, the FBI decided to investigate. According to McQueen's FBI file, revealed on The Vault website, they rejected the request after a thorough examination because of the movie's "outrageous portrayal of the FBI. That refusal joined their extensive file on McQueen, which also details threats against him.

But the CIA also has a long history of involvement with Hollywood. Through a program called “Operation Mockingbird" (detailed in a Carl Bernstein Rolling Stone article and several books), the CIA sought to influence various aspects of American media, bringing in various journalists and publishers to skew coverage of the Cold War. Another tentacle of Mockingbird involved Hollywood, ensuring that popular movies were made with the best interests of the government and protecting any unfavorable information from getting out.

Among the projects the CIA worked on was The Quiet American, an adaptation of Graham Greene’s Vietnam-set novel. Reports have said that the CIA worked to ensure that a bombing in the story is tied to Communist forces, even though the culprit in the book is implied to be an American. Greene was furious that the script -- written with advice from the CIA -- stripped out his anti-war message and decried it as "propaganda."

According to reports, the agency also got involved with other movies like 1984, doing everything from changing the script to adding racial diversity to make America seem more inclusive.

However, their greatest effort as part of Mockingbird may have been their extensive involvement in adapting George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” for the big screen. The agency worked hard to get the rights to the book, thinking they could turn the allegory into a tool against communism. However, changes were required to the original story, which equally criticized communism and capitalism. Instead, the CIA tweaked the script to make communism the clear enemy and changed the ending so the animals revolted against the now-powerful pigs, rather than humans.

Animation company Halas and Batchelor produced the film in England (some have speculated that the location was an attempt to deflect accusations of CIA involvement, but others think the agency just had connections in the production company) as an animated film, partly out of necessity. However, producers also worked to put Disney-like gags throughout the film to broaden its appeal and spread the message farther. The film was a hit with critics and the CIA was pleased, although it saw much opposition from fans of Orwell's book. Author Howard Beckerman would later tell the London Guardian that he felt Orwell would have “vetoed” any effort to produce the film had he still been alive.

Of course, there are theories that the CIA may have had an even more insidious role in filmmaking, as many have linked the agency to the death of screenwriter Gary DeVore. While working on a film about the U.S. invasion of Panama (also his directorial debut), DeVore went missing. His car and body were later found in an aqueduct. His wife, Wendy, would later tell reporters that DeVore had been disturbed with some of his research into the CIA’s involvement in the invasion and that he had seemed “under duress” during his final phone call with her. Many have speculated that the CIA framed his death as an accident in order to prevent the film from getting made, although there is no hard evidence.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Opening Ceremony
fun
arrow
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
Original image
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:

501069-OpeningCeremony2.jpg

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]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES