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Sony Pictures

7 Things to Know About Elysium

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Sony Pictures

Elysium, director Neill Blomkamp’s follow up to District 9, hits theaters today. Here are a few things to know about the film.

1. The film is set in 2154—and Blomkamp thinks his dystopian vision of Earth will come to pass.

In the film, the have-nots live on a polluted and overcrowded Earth, while the have-lots live in an idyllic space station called Elysium, where there's no sickness or poverty. When Max—a blue-collar Earthling with a criminal past—has an accident on the job that gives him just five days to live, he makes it his business to get to Elysium and get cured.

The disparity that Blomkamp portrays in Elysium isn't all that far from reality—many cities around the world have pockets of wealth surrounded by slums. And Blomkamp thinks it will only get worse. His vision of Earth is "a total step backwards, compared with where people think we're going," he told io9. "It's just diseased. It's like a complete lack of technology, and Third World. ... But I think that's where we're going."

2. Before he started shooting—or casting—Blomkamp created a graphic novel as a reference.

Most of his films begin with a visual concept, and Elysium was no exception. “It absolutely blew my mind," Damon told Wired. The book featured not only detailed illustrations of the film's universe and its weapons and technology, but also how Blomkamp wanted Max to look. "Neill was so specific ... He actually had a picture with my face tacked onto this guy with this body," the 42-year-old actor told Variety. Pulling off that muscle-bound look wasn't easy, either. "They literally hired me a trainer and I went to him with the picture," he said. "It was four hours a day in the gym—and I’m not 26 anymore but I got in shape.”

3. Damon wasn’t Blomkamp’s first choice for Max.

First, Blomkamp approached Ninja from the South African musical group Die Antwoord, who turned him down because, according to Wired, he “didn’t want his first screen role to be an American-accented character in such a high-profile film.” Next, the director went to Eminem, who was game—but only if the movie was shot in Detroit. Finally, in 2010, Blomkamp cast Damon, who told MTV that he didn't mind about being third in line for the role. "I just found out about Eminem because I read it somewhere," he said. "It's the kind of thing like ... asking your girlfriend about ex-boyfriends. You don't want to know, and it doesn't affect your relationship. You just get the parts you get."

4. The set for 2154 Los Angeles was the second largest garbage dump in the world.

Soundstages in Vancouver served as the set for Elysium, but to create Blomkamp's vision of a dystopian Los Angeles in 2154, the crew shot for two weeks in a dump in Mexico City, which Damon has said were the toughest two weeks of his career. Because the dust kicked up by the production wasn't dust. It was fecal matter.

"[We had to] literally eat s**t," he said. "It was explained to us that, like any dump anywhere in the world, the dust is actually comprised largely of fecal matter. So, at the end of every day, as we'd wipe this stuff off, we'd be basically throwing these s**tty towels at each other." Meanwhile, during one sequence, Damon's stunt double got soaked in pig urine.

According to the LA Times, conditions were so toxic that at one point the production had to scrape off the top layer of silt and replace it with prop garbage, and the crew had to pass through a clean zone before lunch. 

Shooting in Mexico City also called for increased security. "I very specifically scouted the areas because I wanted them to be as run-down as possible," Blomkamp told Esquire. "That was Matt's only trepidation—the security in Mexico City. He's very game, but the whole thing there is kidnapping, and it's different with him than it is with you or me. He's internationally recognized. People know he's in the country. We had to hire a security firm. Our security guys would run different routes to the set in the morning, do reconnaissance, make sure there were in-and-out routes everyplace we went."

5. Syd Mead designed some of the Elysium sets.

Blomkamp is a huge fan of future-minded designer Syd Mead—whose work you might recognize from films like Blade Runner, Tron, and Aliens. So he asked Mead to help out with Elysium. "I did a rendering for National Geographic on space travel and the future," Mead told Vulture. "One of them was a view inside a 'torus' kind of world. I call it inverse perspective because the ground plane goes up out of sight, up into the ceiling. He saw that rendering years ago, and that fascinated him. Elysium is one of the few or only films with that inverted perspective." The two met in Vancouver, and Mead signed on to help design the space station's briefing and control rooms.

6. Weta Workshop created the film's weapons.

From futuristic AK-47s to deadly droids, all of Elysium's weapons are fully realized. According to Wired, they were designed in a yearlong collaboration between Weta, Blomkamp, and conceptual artist Doug Williams. At a press conference during San Diego Comic Con 2012, Damon said that "Neil and the guys at Weta Workshop came up with all these things; they worked, they made sense, all these guns. You'd see these guys with battery packs on, really kind of gnarly weapons that don't exist in the world that we live in but you totally buy them when you see them. Just seeing them on set, you'd say, ‘This looks like some terrible weapon that someone is going to invent someday.'"

The company also built the exoskeleton that Damon's character wears. "They did a really good job," he told the Huffington Post. "By the time I got it, they got it down to 25 pounds. [It was] distributed over my whole body, so it really wasn't bad." According to press notes for the film, the HULC suit required eight months of research and development and 75 revisions just to finalize the design.

7. The design of Elysium's space station is based on real science.

Specifically, a design called the Stanford Torus, proposed by NASA in 1975. Scientists envisioned a donut-shaped ring over a mile in diameter that would rotate once a minute to create artificial gravity on the inside of the ring via centrifugal force and hold 10,000 people. It would be built from materials from the Moon. Behold:

But although its design is scientifically accurate, Blomkamp admits that the way he imagines Elysium would have been built is not. "Elysium is 'Bel-Air in Space,'" he told io9. "The dark satire of like building a mansion in space—with the weight of taking stones and sh** up there [from Earth]—is hilarious, you know? It's not scientifically plausible, but it's incredibly funny."

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]