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The Late Movies: Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day Marathon Favorites

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During the first half of the 1990s, fans of really bad movies were able to enjoy their pumpkin pie with a heapin’ helping of cheese, thanks to the annual Mystery Science Theater 3000 Thanksgiving Turkey Day Marathon. In case you’re planning to recreate your own MST view-feast this year, here are some of the worst of the worst of their episodes that popped up during previous marathons. Add to these suggestions the recommendations we expect our readers to chime in with below and soon you’ll be channeling your very own inner Turkey Volume Guessing Man!

The Sidehackers

“Hard Riders! Mounted on Burning Steel! …with only their leathers between THEM and HELL!” proclaimed the original lobby card for this 1969 action film about the unsung sport of sidehacking. For the uninitiated, this is a type of motorcycle racing where a metal cage is mounted on the rear, and a competitor hangs on to the metal bars in a squat position with his tushy grazing the ground as the driver squeals around the track. This particular film resulted in a procedural change for the MST writers; previously, they’d never watched a film in its entirety before choosing it, but when the writers sat down to watch Sidehackers and begin writing their riffs, they were horrified to discover that there was a graphic and brutal rape/murder scene involving the hero’s fiancée about halfway through the picture. Of course they cut that scene from the episode, and after the edit Crow simply commented, “For those of you playing along at home, Rita is dead,” to explain the female lead’s sudden disappearance.

Manos: The Hands of Fate

This ersatz horror film was written by and starred Texas fertilizer salesman Harold P. Warren in 1966 using a spring-loaded camera that only shot 30 seconds of film at a time and the same four actors to dub all the voices. Despite a limited budget and an inexperienced crew, Warren overcame all these obstacles and produced a film that surpassed….. okay, I couldn’t even type that with a straight face. Manos is an exercise in sadomasochism; it’s not just that it’s bad, but that it’s mostly long stretches of nothing strung together. Contrary to Hollywood El Paso legend, John “Torgo” Reynolds did not wear his prosthetic goat-legs backwards during filming (causing painful skeletal damage and an addiction to painkillers). According to a co-star, Reynolds was already regularly enjoying the recreational drugs typical of the era prior to ever donning his costume, so his 1966 suicide might not have been strictly Manos-related.

The Skydivers

This 1963 Coleman Francis delight has the dubious honor of once being the lowest-rated film on the Internet Movie Database. Set in a dreary unnamed desert town, Beth and her husband Harry manage a small airport where they also offer skydiving lessons. All seems well for a while until Frankie, Suzy, and Joe show up and a barely intelligible love pentagon forms. Beth and Harry distract themselves from all the sabotage, murder, and adultery surrounding them by throwing the world’s wackiest airport party, featuring the music of famed session guitarist Jimmy Bryant. Who couldn’t have fun on a dance tarmac filled with beefy bathing beauties, farmers, mini-skirted skaters and a random Scotsman all twistin’ the night away?

The Starfighters

It’s the age-old conundrum: the brash young Air Force lieutenant loves fighter planes, but his Congressman (and war hero) father is pressuring him to fly heavy bombers. Add to this endless scenes of mid-air refueling and a demonstration of the poopie suit, and you’ve got a 78-minute Cold War public service advertisement for the military.

Master Ninja

This “movie” was actually two episodes of a short-lived 1980s TV series called The Master cobbled together. Lee Van Cleef portrays John Peter McAllister, the world’s only Occidental Ninja Master, who is criss-crossing the U.S. in a van owned by Max Keller (Timothy van Patten) in search of his long-lost daughter. Along the way, the duo assist many people in various types of distress using ninja skills and a vast array of martial arts weaponry. Part of the fun of watching this episode is spotting the upper-middle aged Van Cleef’s obvious body double during the ninjutsu fighting scenes. Or you could distract yourself by forming a funk/fusion band and writing your own Master Ninja Theme Song. Here’s how it might sound.

Space Mutiny

The plot of this 1988 colonizing-a-new-world-in-outer-space film is secondary to the unintentionally memorable moments throughout the film. For example, the character who is killed on camera only to show up alive and well at her desk in the next scene, or the futuristic space scooters that are obviously industrial floor polishers covered in spray-painted cardboard. Then there is the litany of macho nicknames that Mike and the ‘bots give to the hunky hero Dave Ryder. Your tummy ache after watching this will definitely be from laughter rather than too much turkey and stuffing. By the way, the two lead characters in this film were married in real life and just celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary this year. Eagle-eyed viewers may recognize Cisse Cameron (the spandex-clad female lead) as “Miss False Eyelashes” from Billy Jack, her first film role.

Girls Town

I’m sure that Mamie Van Doren’s excellent posture has something to do with why this particular episode is on “repeat” on my husband’s MST playlist. Van Doren, 28 at the time, is charged with a crime she didn’t commit—but a sympathetic judge sends her to Girls Town rather than reform school. Mel Torme, pushing 40, is the leader of the n’er-do-well teen gang that got Van Doren in trouble in the first place. Paul Anka plays teen heartthrob Jimmy Parlow and sings his future number one hit “Lonely Boy,” but it’s his rendition of “Ave Maria” that makes Mamie rethink her life and decide to walk that righteous path of the straight and narrow.

The best way to watch a riffed movie is with a theater full of like-minded fans, so we heartily recommend seeing members of the show's cast performing with both Cinematic Titanic (live shows) and Rifftrax (live theater simulcasts) when they’re playing. Both also offer DVDs. Now’s your chance to recommend your personal MST Turkey Day favorites, be they films or shorts. Are you a sword-and-sandal type of guy, or are you the one who can’t get enough of Gamera? Put down your Industrial Arts tools long enough to let us know!

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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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