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The Lost Scripts, Part II: Indiana Jones and the Saucermen from Mars

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While it’s not unusual for a film to have unused screenplays hiding in a filing cabinet somewhere, the lost scripts of Indiana Jones are a fascinating look at what might have been for everyone’s favorite whip-wielding, fedora-wearing archaeologist. Today let's discuss Indiana Jones and the Saucermen from Mars.

The Story Behind the Story

After the success of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, director Steven Spielberg and star Harrison Ford were ready to do a fourth film. However, executive producer and writer George Lucas felt that he'd explored the character in the movies as much as he could. So everyone moved on to other projects, though Lucas stuck with Indy as executive producer of the television show, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

While filming a two-part episode that featured a cameo by Harrison Ford as a 50-year old Indiana Jones, Lucas got an idea to bring Indy back. This time, he wouldn't be the same daring young archaeologist that he was in the first three movies. Instead, he would be an older man that couldn't go on the same adventures anymore; he might even decide to finally settle down and get married. And if the first three movies were a tribute to the serials of the 1930s and 40s, this one would take place in the 1950s and homage the sci-fi flying saucer B-movies of that era.

To that end, Lucas wrote a basic story outline with some key action set pieces as he had for all the previous Indiana Jones movies, and handed it off to screenwriter Jeb Stuart, writer of Die Hard and co-author of The Fugitive. The result was a 1995 screenplay titled, Indiana Jones and the Saucermen from Mars.

The Plot

BORNEO 1949

After battling river pirates and a rival archaeologist, Indy and his friend Kabul stop at a local fishing port to pick up Dr. Elaine McGregor, a linguist, whom Indy has been hired to escort to a jungle temple. Indy is instantly smitten with the confident brunette, and through various adventures, the two rough-edged academics fall in love.

Back stateside, Indy and Elaine are about to tie the knot, despite barely knowing one another. Indy's former flames, Marion and Willie, his old friend Sallah, and Henry Jones, Sr. are there to witness an event they thought they'd never see. As Indy and his father stand at the altar waiting for Elaine to walk down the aisle, she leaves — still dressed in her gown — and hops in a car with a mysterious man.

A heartbroken Indy searches Elaine's office and finds clues that point to her going to the White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico, the military base where the Trinity nuclear bomb tests were held. Indy gets caught snooping around the base and is interrogated by Bob Bolander, the same man that took Elaine away from the wedding.

When Elaine is called to verify Indy’s story, she realizes she could actually use his help. Despite Bolander’s resistance, Indy is allowed to join a top secret project researching debris found at the crash site of a flying saucer. Indy is skeptical, but his interest is piqued when he's shown the charred remains of alien bodies, as well as a strange stone cylinder. The cylinder is covered in a series of rings and complex code written in ancient languages including early Egyptian hieroglyphics and Sanskrit. In addition, the cylinder is a great source of power, able to turn on a radio or illuminate a light bulb by proximity alone.

Thanks to a room-sized computer, Indy and Elaine crack the coded symbols on the cylinder. One section is latitude and longitude coordinates for nearby Mt. Keebo. Indy surmises that perhaps the aliens were trying to take the cylinder to the mountain when they crashed. The rest of the code seems to be descending numbers, like the countdown for a bomb. That can't be good.

Soon after, Elaine and the cylinder are taken and placed aboard a plane full of Russian spies. Indy tries to rescue her, but is about to be tossed out the bomb bay doors when a flying saucer appears and tries to take control of the plane. Its plan is foiled, though, when Air Force jets are scrambled, leading to a high-speed dogfight.

Later, our heroes have a close encounter of the third kind after their truck is lifted off the ground by a beam coming from the bottom of the saucer. When Indy approaches the aliens to return the cylinder, whose rings are now glowing because the countdown has begun, the aliens back away and keep saying, “Mukara. Mukara.” Being a linguist, Elaine realizes that Mukara is Sanskrit for “dangerous.”

Suddenly, explosions rock the area as Army tanks and missiles under the command of Bolander destroy the UFO. Bolander takes the cylinder and he and his convoy head towards Mt. Keebo. Indy and Elaine – as well as a Russian spy and a new flying saucer – give chase.

Just before going up the mountain, the Army attacks the flying saucer with everything they’ve got. But this time, when the shooting stops, the ship is unharmed. It begins to rise above the ridgeline and we see that it’s a gigantic mothership that fills the sky. Bolander hightails it in his Jeep, but the rest of the convoy is frozen in horror. The saucer is able to conjure up a great wind that sweeps through the valley, flipping trucks and tanks like a child’s toys, and burying men in the desert sand.

On Mt. Keebo, just before dawn, three saucers appear in the sky, each emitting a green light focused on the summit. Bolander takes the cylinder into the green lights and holds it above his head as his body surges with power. Suddenly, a bright white light shoots out of the cylinder. Bolander points it at the Russian, who melts before our eyes.

But then, the sun breaks the horizon, and it seems to invigorate the saucers, which glow brighter and brighter. Bolander holds the cylinder above his head again, hoping that its power will have some effect on the spacecraft. Instead, a beam fires out of the bottom of the cylinder, splitting Bolander in two. The cylinder’s white light becomes blinding, the hum of the saucers becomes deafening, and then, in a flash...the saucers and the cylinder are gone.

Back at home, Elaine and Indy finally get married with the same old friends in attendance. When they get in the car, a now grown-up Short Round drives the happy couple off into the sunset.

The Action

Coming from the guy who brought us Die Hard, you would have high expectations for the action sequences in Saucermen. You would be sorely disappointed. Sure, Indy has a fistfight on a rocket engine test sled, but that scene shows up so often in other Indy IV scripts that it’s clearly something Lucas insisted upon. Other than that, the set pieces just aren’t all that exciting. Perhaps most telling is that Indy punches a lot of bad guys, but he only uses his whip once in the very beginning. The whip isn’t even mentioned again for the rest of the script. What's an Indy movie without a few scenes of the bullwhip? Without some script punch-ups, it would have been the least-Indy Indy movie of the series.

Aside from the rocket sled, we see other echoes of Saucermen in future Indy IV scripts. For example, flesh-stripping army ants play an important role in the opening scenes in Borneo. These tiny red menaces are a constant presence in other Indy IV scripts, clear through to the final release of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Even the much-maligned “nuke the fridge” scene is here, though it plays out a little differently. Instead of crawling inside the fridge, Indy throws himself into a very shallow crawlspace and pulls the fridge down over the hole “like a lead-lined turtle shell.” Whether or not he’d survive a nuclear blast even in this scenario is still up for debate, though.

The Aftermath

Oxymoronic, boring action sequences aside, perhaps the worst offense of the script is that the cylinder is a poorly-defined plot device. We know it's a power source, but we're never quite sure how it works, what will happen if the countdown reaches zero, why the cylinder needed to go to Mt. Keebo, why the aliens were carrying it in the first place, or, if the aliens don't want it when Indy tries to give it back, why they follow it all over the New Mexico desert throughout the rest of the story. Ultimately, it’s not very exciting because we don’t really know what’s at stake.

Regardless of its shortcomings, Indiana Jones and the Saucermen from Mars was what Lucas wanted to see. It wasn't, however, what Spielberg wanted to direct. Spielberg had already done his fair share of alien movies with 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 1982's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial; it simply wasn't a genre he was interested in revisiting at the time. Ford wasn't a fan, either. He felt that the paranormal element was too blatant. Although the Indy films had always had a hint of the supernatural, it had always been in the background, which made it easier for fans to accept.

Lucas continued working on the idea with screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, who had written Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In December 1995, Boam came up with a script that finally convinced Spielberg and Ford that the alien idea could work...and then Independence Day came out that summer. To avoid looking like a copycat of a wildly successful film, Spielberg killed Indy vs. Aliens almost immediately. But Lucas held his ground and refused to do an Indy IV unless it involved little green men. At an impasse, everyone went their separate ways and it appeared that the franchise would conclude with The Last Crusade.

Stay tuned for the next exciting episode, Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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