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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
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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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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