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Q&A: The Filmmakers of Lunarcy!

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It's been 40 years since we've sent anyone to the Moon, but that doesn't mean people have stopped dreaming about going there—and Lunarcy!, which played the SXSW film festival this week, explores how these lunar dreamers plan to make the trip. We sat down with director Simon Ennis, producer Jonas Bell Pasht, and, eventually, documentary subject Chris Carson, to talk about why people still love the Moon so much. Lunarcy! airs April 3 on EPIX.

m_f: How did you find out about these people, and what made you want to make a documentary about them?
Simon Ennis:
Originally, the idea for the documentary was a lot more straightforward. It was just going to be a film about all the different ways people have seen the moon. But as I started interviewing people, I got a lot more interested in their stories, so it quickly became more about the people than about the moon.

Everybody in the movie, for the most part, I was familiar with what they did or had read about—except for Chris [Carson]. He was the one true discovery. I was at my very first shoot, which was at the Space Access Conference in Phoenix, Arizona, a conference for people working in the commercial space industry—NASA, Boeing, Virgin Galactic, all that stuff. It was a total washout. It was literally one presentation after another, saying, “With this new propellant I developed, we can get three tons more payload up into the lower-Earth orbit.” I talked to Jonas at night and he’d ask how it was going, and I’d be like, “It’s great! You know … networking … maybe we’ll go talk to Virgin Galactic later,” or something like that, but really I was getting nothing.

Then, two days in, the elevator doors opened and out walked a guy with a phenomenal mustache and vest that said “Luna City or Bust,” so I went up to him and said, “Hi there, will you tell me what this vest’s all about?” and he said, “Well, my name’s Chris Carson, and I’m starting a DIY space program called The Lunar Project. I want to be the first person to leave Earth and never return. I want to live on the moon.” We found the one and only five-foot-five background in the entire hotel that was at all photogenic, which was the karaoke stage of the hotel bar, and we talked for an hour and I thought, “This guy is a movie star. He’s a natural.” And then we spent, on-and-off, the whole next year together traveling the States.

m_f: You talked to a lot of interesting people who have very interesting ideas. Why did you choose to make Chris the central character?
SE: It happened on its own. As we were cutting, we were figuring out [that we needed] more Dennis [Hope], who owns the moon, or less or more of Alan [Bean], the astronaut from Apollo 12. Also, because Chris was like going for something a little more tangible—he was actively going places and doing things—he just became a natural fit.

Jonas Ball Pasht: He had a clear arc. He was on a mission to accomplish something. The film is populated by these really eccentric and compelling characters who are doing interesting things. But Chris had the ultimate hero's journey to go live on the moon.

m_f: Did you ever have any hesitation about including Dennis? He's selling property on the Moon based on a loophole that he says gives him ownership, but his claim on the Moon obviously isn't legitimate.
SE: I had absolutely no hesitation whatsoever. Hearing about his story was actually one of the reasons I wanted to make the movie in the first place. I thought it was the greatest idea I ever heard—his whole claim of ownership is predicated on the fact that he sent a letter to the United Nations, U.S., and U.S.S.R. saying, “I’m going do this unless I hear from you that there’s a legal problem.” They never wrote back, so he took that as the tacit acceptance of his ownership, and I’m such a fan of that idea and of the narrative that he’s built.

I actually don’t really care about the “Is it real? Is it not?” He’s been interviewed many times, and there are two ways people interview him: “Haha. This is hilarious and ridiculous and it’s just this shtick,” or “How dare you do this!” And I thought both of those ways were boring. I never really wanted to question his claim, I just wanted to see how big and how far and how vast his narrative was. We spent three or four days with him and it goes really far—

JBP: It goes real deep.

SE: He’s an incredible guy. After a day or two, Jonas said to me, “What if everything he’s saying is completely true?” and that’s how I like to think of it. I didn’t ever want to break down the barrier and [Dennis] never did, not even when we were off camera. I couldn’t tell you 100 percent if he’s a true believer in what he’s saying, but if he’s not, he puts on an amazing show, because he never once broke, and he has a really good sense of humor about … I mean, he knows it’s funny and it’s kind of ridiculous, but he’s absolutely committed.

m_f: Why do you think people are so fascinated by the Moon and the idea of living on the Moon?
SE: I think people are fascinated by the Moon because it’s an easy thing to project your dreams on. Whatever you think about the moon, it says more about you and your hopes and aspirations than it actually does about the moon. I think that it’s kind of the biggest and most obvious symbol of the greater universe—if you just glance up, you immediately know that it’s a huge universe that we’re just a tiny part in. It’s crazy that there’s almost this other planet in the sky every night, and I think that’s why it attracts people.

JBP: I think in terms of colonizing it, there are scientific and evolutionary applications and reasons why people are devoted to that. I think our film is really about what Simon just put his finger on.

m_f: One thing the film touches on is the fact that our space program has stalled, that we no longer put people on the Moon. It's very sad.
SE: I completely agree with you. It was wonderful when we talked to Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon. He’s such an inspiring guy and has an amazing, positive attitude and great stories, so it’s wonderful spending time with him. But it’s also really sad. There were only 12 people who walked on the moon and they’re all really old. As a kid, I remember—I guess it was during the shuttle program—that NASA seemed like it was the future. And now it doesn’t. I think that we’re in a transition period, and hopefully commercial companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic will take the reins.

I hope it happens faster—I’d love to go. I became a little bit of a space nut, making this movie. The idea of going up there and looking out is really beautiful and profound and thrilling. I think that there is some hope. With the Dragon capsule docking with the ISS, it looks like something’s going to happen. I just hope the will is there.

Without something as visible as the Apollo Program, I don’t know if kids now are as into wanting to be astronauts as they used to be. But I think as soon as anything happens, be it a private space mission to the moon or Chris getting his way, or China or India [going there], that spark will come alive almost immediately. If China puts a man on the moon, the U.S. will probably want to do something, too, because if you can control the moon then you can really do a lot. Although, obviously they’d have to talk to Dennis first.

m_f: Who were some people you filmed, but couldn't include?
SE: A lot of people. Everywhere I went, I tried to talk to as many people as I could. When we were at the worldwide science fiction convention, I talked to a psychologist who worked for NASA about the psychology of being in space—he was kind of more of an expert in deep space, like projecting if someone was going to be on a mission for six years and what that would do to them—and I had a lot of really interesting conversations and they just didn’t really fit with the film. In New York, we talked to an urban shaman, Mamadonna, who does the moon ritual in the movie. I had the full interview with her and I actually expected her to be one of the main characters in the movie, and she was a lovely person, but she just didn’t fit with the film. The first cut of the movie was three hours long, and it was just paring down and paring down.

Enter Chris Carson, who arrives with his bags and a Snoopy stuffed animal, which is dressed like an astronaut. Attached to it are conference ribbons from the places Carson has visited.

m_f: When did you first become interested in going to live on the Moon?
Chris Carson:
I’ve been fascinated with space and space travel from the first that I can remember. I grew up in a household where these ideas were normal, and so to me, the fact that I got out into larger society and found that they weren’t considered normal, that people didn’t take them necessarily seriously, was astonishing to me. To an extent, I felt that it was my job to change that almost just because I understand these ideas to be very important. If you have an important idea, then you have a kind of responsibility to diffuse it.

But also, it was kind of tiring being around people who just said, “What?”, who didn’t understand what I was talking about, and so I’ve always had this kind of idea, so working through different plans—I’ve worked out all kinds of plans from high school onward—I came to the conclusion that the thing that would actually work is to use existing technologies, not new things that have to be developed, but existing technologies and existing capabilities and ones which are in the pipeline now, to go to the lunar surface and use the resources there to bootstrap as it were.

About 2007, I decided—because of some things that were going on in my life—that what I really needed to do was to stop what I was doing and go out and start proselytizing, start explaining this to people, start bringing this message to people and encourage them to actually do something about it because the fundamental issue we have is, people don’t believe and understand that it’s a realistic prospect, so they don’t do it. If enough people believed in it to put their money where their mouth was, we would have had this 20 to 30 years ago.

m_f: Can you walk me through your plan? What are some of the challenges we're facing in getting to the Moon?
CC: I have this crate here, of visual aids. I never travel anywhere without visual aids. You can see I have maps. These are papers out of old industry magazines, so for example this is from 1962. Many of the studies they did are still relevant today—you can make adjustments for modern technology, so all of the stuff that they’ve budgeted tons and tons and tons for, in many cases, we can now do with a few milligrams. A lot of the things are now much less massive than they were, and some things we’ve just discovered better ways [to accomplish].

This is a National Geographic article describing an army facility in Greenland, where they tunneled under the snow and they had a nuclear reactor for power, actually. The layout is very similar to what an early lunar base would be like because they dug these trenches and they put the shelters down into the trenches and buried them back over. And that’s insulation against the weather, but it also works on the moon as radiation insulation, which is the main hazard—space radiation.

Then there’s meteorites. Of course, with the [Russian meteor from last month], we are all much more noticing now than we were. And of course there’s a possibility that a comet will hit Mars next year, potentially destroying all of the probes that we’ve sent to Mars and creating a crater 2600 miles in diameter. So, you know, planetary defense is coming onto the front burner, as it’s been for those of us in the space community since at least the early ‘80s.

The fact is, there’s this global interconnectedness that we cannot ignore. The best investment strategy is to diversify, right? Because if one of your investments doesn’t do well, then another one will be okay. Well, in this same sense, we diversify ecologically. If one of our planets doesn’t do well, then maybe one of the other ones will be okay.

Right now, here on Earth, we have one biosphere. One of the things about living in space, whether it be on the moon, it be on Mars, it be in O'Neill colonies, which are the ultimate objective—because you can build them to be whatever you want inside, you could have something the size of Texas with the climate of San Diego if you wanted—the idea is, when you have multiple biospheres, you’re far more resistant. That if something goes extinct on Earth, but there’s somebody raising it as a crop on an O’Neill colony, then it can be re-imported.

When you go into space, you’re facing a harsh environment. You’re facing an unforgiving environment. If you make a mistake, if you screw up, you may very well be dead. It’s amazing that we haven’t lost astronauts in space. The people we’ve lost have either been coming up or down, which are very difficult stages, but you know how many astronauts who have had suit punctures? It’s more than you think. I've always said, “You can’t run away from your mistakes in a space colony.” On Earth, you can do all kinds of things and the effects don’t show up for a hundred years. In a space colony, your waste products come back to you right then. So you learn a lot more about managing environments. 

At this point, we had to wrap up. If you'd like to know more about Chris Carson's Luna Project and his plans for getting to the moon, check out its website.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Library of Congress
10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.


One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.


Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.


Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”


The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.


Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.


Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.


The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.


Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.