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King Kong Turns 80

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Getty Images

On March 2, 1933, a beast proudly dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world” made his grand debut at Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall and its sister theater across the street. Though ticket prices ranged from 35 to 75 cents, King Kong went on to gross a then-whopping $89,931 over the next four days in New York City alone. Not bad for a movie released at the rock-bottom of the Great Depression! Since then, the simian celebrity has (among other things) starred in two remakes, battled Godzilla, and even worked as a “spokes-primate” for Volkswagen.

But it’s the original picture that’s left the biggest influence on the motion picture industry, a movie that opened the door for every special-effects film from The Wizard of Oz to The Lord of the Rings. In honor of the 80th anniversary of its release, here’s a look back at the movie’s historic production, groundbreaking effects, and far-reaching legacy.

1. Fay Wray's tall, dark, and handsome co-star wasn't who she expected.

When producer/director Merian C. Cooper boasted to lead actress Fay Wray that she “was going to have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood,” Wray assumed he was talking about Cary Grant. After Wray’s death in 2004, the Empire State Building memorialized the actress by briefly dimming its lights in honor of her legendary climb with Kong. She can be seen here at the 70th Academy Awards opposite comedian Billy Crystal.

2. Cooper originally planned to include live Komodo dragons in the film to stand in for dinosaurs.

According to some reports, Cooper even considered recruiting a few of the lizards to fight an actual gorilla over a miniature set before eventually resorting to stop-motion animals (partially due to safety concerns). A pair of these magnificent reptiles had previously been brought to New York before quickly perishing, a tragic tale which inspired much of Kong’s emotional pathos. 

3. King Kong was the first movie ever to be re-released.

Opting to capitalize on the film’s astounding success, RKO studios re-released it in 1938, 1942, and 1952. The scene of Kong’s partial disrobement of Ann Darrow (played by Fay Wray) was cut from the 1938 run, while the ’52 version came with added footage of the Empire State Building.

4. Kong’s chief special effects artist, Willis O’Brien, had previously worked for Thomas Edison.

Having seen some of his earliest work, Edison commissioned O’Brien to produce a series of stop-motion films beginning in 1916. You can see highlights from one of their more lighthearted collaborations below.

5. King Kong was Among the first movies to Have a Completely Original Musical Score.

Hailed as “the father of film composing,” Austrian-born Max Steiner, who had previously worked on Broadway musicals, was permitted by Cooper to compose a full-length musical score (at the director’s personal expense). Prior to Kong, cinematic musicians generally borrowed tracks from earlier recordings. Steiner’s soundtrack includes character motifs and accompaniment designed to precisely mirror on-screen movement. Listen to the main title theme below.

6. The scene of Kong attacking a train was added to prevent the film from taking up 13 reels.

The superstitious Cooper, hearing this unlucky number, exclaimed, “No picture of mine is going out in thirteen reels! I’ll shoot an extra sequence and bring it up to fourteen if I have to!” Ultimately, the final version was whittled down to eleven reels, but the added footage quickly became some of the picture’s most memorable.

7. Kong’s apparent size was deliberately increased for the New York scenes.

According to film historian Rich Correll, “When they started doing the New York scenes, Cooper said ‘Because New York is so big, the ape should be bigger.’” So while Kong was depicted as being 18 feet tall on Skull Island during the movie’s first half, his “height” was scaled up to 24 feet during its urban climax.

8. Kong’s distinctive roar was created by editing Lion and Tiger growls.

After recording an array of animal noises which he slowed to half-speed, sound effects artist Murray Spivak “played a tiger roar backwards against a lion roar forward,” which produced “a sort of uncanny” howl. Spivak himself provided the “love grunts” Kong used while trying to win over Ann.

9. A former boxer, Willis O’Brien gave Kong a few wrestling moves he’d previously learned during his classic fight with an irate Tyrannosaurus.

See if you can spot the influence in this clip:

10. Cooper and his partner Ernest B. Schoedsack cast themselves as the pilots who gunned down Kong in the film’s climax.

“We might as well kill the son of a bitch ourselves,” said Cooper, who had flown in World War I. Inspired by this, Peter Jackson (a huge King Kong fan) climbed into a plane to take down the eighth wonder of the world for the 2005 remake.

Look for Jackson at the 0:36 second mark (he’s sitting in the co-pilot’s chair):

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]