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Let's Get Neurological: 10 Contests for Mental Athletes

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Flickr: TrishaLyn

Maybe your days of physical athletic prowess are far behind you. But brains can grow more efficient over time if properly worked out. Fortunately, there are many competitions out there for those of us who have to start choosing brains over brawn. Here are a few of them—and some suggestions for how you can train with products from the floss store.

1. THE MEMORIAD

Held every four years (yes, just like the Olympics!), the Memoriad is a global memory, mental calculation, and photographic-reading competition. Categories of competition include memorizing the order of a deck of cards, adding one- to four-digit numbers seen flashing on a screen, and calculating the correct day of the week for randomly selected calendar dates between the years 1600 and 2099. And no, you may not take out your graphing calculators … or your iPhones. Gold, silver, and bronze medals are awarded in each category.

This unique Frank Lloyd Wright Designs Memory Game could bring some fun into your memory training regimen.

2. LOLLAPUZZOOLA

Though possibly more subdued than the Lollapalooza music festival, Lollapuzzoola is a summertime crossword puzzle contest held in New York City and the second-largest contest of its kind in the United States. Competitors are broken into four divisions (two based on skill, one for rookies, and one for pairs), and are scored on both speed and accuracy. But watch out, there’s a 10-point deduction for each wrong letter. So maybe you do this one in pencil, huh?

Train for this one with Mental Floss's own book of crossword puzzles.

3. THE MOMATH MASTERS TOURNAMENT

The National Museum of Mathematics in New York City hosted the MoMath Masters Tournament this past spring. The night consisted of cocktails and challenges from three categories: Gardner Greats (questions selected from the work of math writer Martin Gardner), Math Pulse, and Math Classics. Question one:

Lewis Carroll’s Alice is wandering around the Forest of Forgetfulness, where she is unable to remember the day of the week. In the forest she meets the Lion and the Unicorn. The Lion lies on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and the Unicorn lies on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. At all other times both animals tell the truth. "Yesterday was one of my lying days," says the Lion. "Yesterday was one of my lying days too," says the Unicorn. Alice is able to deduce the day of the week. What is it?

If you can puzzle this out, you’re better than I. I’d like to hear more about the cocktails.

In Einstein's Riddlephilosopher and mathematician Jeremy Stangroom has collected some of the classic riddles and paradoxes from throughout history and brought them together in a fun and visually-appealing way—we really like this book.

4. THE PUN-OFFS

The O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships have been held every year since 1977 in Austin, Texas (for those wondering, O. Henry was the iconic short story writer who gave us "The Gift of the Magi"). Competitors face off in two categories: Punniest of Show, where they have 90 seconds to recite prepared material, and Punslingers, a “shootout” between two players that ends when one competitor runs out of puns. There is a reason why pun and fun rhyme.

Train your punny bone—and learn more on the history of punning and how the author took home the Punslingers trophy in 1995—in The Pun Also Rises.

5. THE DECAMENTATHLON

Created for the Mind Sports Olympiad, the Decamentathlon is the less physically challenging version of the decathlon—you know, the Olympic event Bruce Jenner won in 1976. While mastering the Decamentathlon will not put your face on a Wheaties box and probably won’t score your family your own reality TV show, it will mean you’re pretty darn smart. It’s a four-hour test broken into 10 “events": Backgammon, Chess, creative thinking, Checkers/Draughts, Go, intelligence, Mastermind, memory, mental calculations, and Othello, or Reversi. Mind Sports Olympiad die-hards can also compete in the Pentamind, which includes half the amount of events, but categories can change from year to year.  

Sounds like your Whole Brain ought to be optimized to compete in this one—try training with the Whole Brain Game.

6. THE USA MEMORY CHAMPIONSHIP

This competition was created in 1997 by a businessman who wanted to prove to people that the brain can get stronger with age, and competitors in the USA Memory Championship fashion themselves as “Mental Athletes.” Events include the memorization of names and faces, a shuffled deck of cards, an unpublished poem, and a list of 200 words. Hopefully the event organizers keep enough Gatorade on the sidelines.

Journalist Joshua Foer spent a year training his memory as research for his book, Moonwalking With Einstein, and in preparation for this event.

7. THE WORLD PUZZLE CHAMPIONSHIPS

This three-day international competition consists of both team and individual challenges. Each participant completes a 13-part puzzle booklet in the first two days, and the leaders face off in the individual playoffs on day three. The World Puzzle Federation, which hosts this event, also runs the World Sudoku Championships.

Get your puzzle-solving up-to-speed with Mental Floss's Book of Logic Puzzles.

8. THE MENTAL CALCULATION WORLD CUP

Every two years, mathematicians gather to show off their skills in problems based on basic arithmetic principles. The 2012 Cup was held in Germany, and winner Naofumi Ogasawara of Japan broke a world record by adding 10 sets of 10 10-digit numbers in three minutes and 11 seconds. The Usain Bolt of math, ladies and gentlemen.

Prep for this one by honing your mental math skills with the book Secrets of Mental Math.

9. THE NATIONAL ADULT SPELLING BEE

As the Scripps National Spelling Bee continues to build on its reputation as the country’s most-watched mental sport, adults are getting in on the action: The National Adult Spelling Bee has been held in Long Beach, Calif., since 2006. After four years of competing, a French professor from Alabama took the 2013 competition by correctly spelling “quincunx.” The competitor in second place got caught up on “tourbillion” in the 26th round.  

Hmmmm, don't know how exactly to help you with this one—maybe you should read a lot more. Try Mental Floss: The Book—Only The Greatest Lists In The History of Listory.

10. PUZZLEHUNTS

In this scavenger hunt for puzzle lovers, each team has to first find puzzles that are hidden in secret locations, and then solve them. Each solved puzzle usually leads to the next. Puzzlehunts are fairly popular among the techy-crowd, and are held annually at institutions like MIT, which hosted its longest one (73 hours and more than 150 puzzles!) this year. Puzzles can include mind-stumpers such as anagrams and cryptograms, but really, anything goes. Some puzzles in the MIT event may not even have an answer, but organizers promise this is rare. Just keeping everyone on their toes. 

Start your brain training with a good baseline measurement using this IQ Test Kit. Prepare with the included practice question, take the test, and then mail in your answers in the included postage-paid envelope—and receive your personalized certificate and results within 28 days!

Primary image courtesy of Flickr user TrishaLyn.

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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox
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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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10 Hush-Hush Facts About L.A. Confidential
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Warner Bros.

On this day 20 years ago, a rising star director, a writer who thought he’d never get the gig, and a remarkable cast got together to make a film about the corrupt underbelly of 1950s Los Angeles, and the men and women who littered its landscape. This was L.A. Confidential, a film so complex that its creator (legendary crime writer James Ellroy) thought it was “unadaptable.” In the end, it was one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1990s, a film noir classic that made its leading actors into even bigger stars, and which remains an instantly watchable masterpiece to this day. Here are 10 facts about how it got made.

1. THE SCRIPTING PROCESS WAS TOUGH.

Writer-director Curtis Hanson had been a longtime James Ellroy fan when he finally read L.A. Confidential, and the characters in that particular Ellroy novel really spoke to him, so he began working on a script. Meanwhile, Brian Helgeland—originally contracted to write an unproduced Viking film for Warner Bros.—was also a huge Ellroy fan, and lobbied hard for the studio to give him the scripting job. When he learned that Hanson already had it, the two met, and bonded over their mutual admiration of Ellroy’s prose. Their passion for the material was clear, but it took two years to get the script done, with a number of obstacles.

"He would turn down other jobs; I would be doing drafts for free,” Helgeland said. “Whenever there was a day when I didn't want to get up anymore, Curtis tipped the bed and rolled me out on the floor."

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED AS A MINISERIES.

When executive producer David Wolper first read Ellroy’s novel, he saw the dense, complex story as the perfect fodder for a television miniseries, and was promptly turned down by all the major networks at the time.

3. JAMES ELLROY DIDN’T THINK THE BOOK COULD BE ADAPTED.

Though Wolper was intrigued by the idea of telling the story onscreen, Ellroy and his agent laughed at the thought. The author felt his massive book would never fit on any screen.

“It was big, it was bad, it was bereft of sympathetic characters,” Ellroy said. “It was unconstrainable, uncontainable, and unadaptable.”

4. CURTIS HANSON SOLD THE FILM WITH CLASSIC LOS ANGELES IMAGES.

To get the film made, Hanson had to convince New Regency Pictures head Arnon Milchan that it was worth producing. To do this, he essentially put together a collage of classic Los Angeles imagery, from memorable locations to movie stars, including the famous image of Robert Mitchum leaving jail after his arrest for using marijuana.

"Now you've seen the image of L.A. that was sold to get everybody to come here. Let's peel back the image and see where our characters live,” Hanson said.

Milchan was sold.

5. KEVIN SPACEY WAS ON HANSON’S WISH LIST FOR YEARS.

Though the other stars of the film were largely discoveries of the moment, Kevin Spacey was apparently someone Hanson wanted to work with for years. Spacey described Hanson as a director “who’d been trying for years and years and years to get me cast in films he made, and the studio always rejected me.” After Spacey won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, Hanson called the actor and said “I think I’ve got the role, and I think they’re not gonna say no this time.”

6. SPACEY’S CHARACTER IS BASED ON DEAN MARTIN.

Warner Bros.

Though he cast relative unknowns in Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, Hanson wanted an American movie star for the role of Jack Vincennes, and decided on Kevin Spacey. In an effort to convince Spacey to take the role, Hanson invited him to dine at L.A.’s famous Formosa Cafe (where scenes in the film are actually set). While at the cafe, Spacey asked a vital question:

“If it was really 1952, and you were really making this movie, who would you cast as Jack Vincennes? And [Hanson] said ‘Dean Martin.’”

At that point, Spacey looked up at the gallery of movie star photos which line the cafe, and realized Martin’s photo was right above him.

“To this day, I don’t know whether he sat us in that booth on purpose, but there was Dino looking down at me,” Spacey said.

After his meeting with Hanson, Spacey watched Martin’s performances in Some Came Running (1958) and Rio Bravo (1959), and realized that both films featured characters who mask vulnerability with a layer of cool. That was the genesis of Jack Vincennes.

7. HANSON CHOSE MUCH OF THE MUSIC BEFORE FILMING.

To help set the tone for his period drama, Hanson began selecting music of the early 1950s even before filming began, so he could play it on set as the actors went to work. Among his most interesting choices: When Jack Vincennes sits in a bar, staring at the money he’s just been bribed with, Dean Martin’s “Powder Your Face With Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!)” plays, a reference to both the character’s melancholy, and to Spacey and Hanson’s decision to base the character on Martin.

8. THE CINEMATOGRAPHY WAS INSPIRED BY ROBERT FRANK PHOTOGRAPHS.

To emphasize realism and period accuracy, cinematographer Dante Spinotti thought less about the moving image, and more about still photographs. In particular, he used photographer Robert Frank’s 1958 collection "The Americans" as a tool, and relied less on artificial light and more on environmental light sources like desk lamps.

"I tried to compose shots as if I were using a still camera,” Spinotti said. “I was constantly asking myself, 'Where would I be if I were holding a Leica?' This is one reason I suggested shooting in the Super 35 widescreen format; I wanted to use spherical lenses, which for me have a look and feel similar to still-photo work.”

9. THE FINAL STORY TWIST IS NOT IN THE BOOK.

Warner Bros.

[SPOILER ALERT] In the film, Jack Vincennes, Ed Exley, and Bud White are all chasing a mysterious crime lord known as “Rollo Tomasi,” who turns out to be their own LAPD colleague, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Though Vincennes, Exley, and White are all native to Ellroy’s novel, the Tomasi name is entirely an invention of the film.

10. ELLROY APPROVED OF THE MOVIE.

To adapt L.A. Confidential for the screen, Hanson and Helgeland condensed Ellroy’s original novel, boiling the story down to a three-person narrative and ditching other subplots so they could get to the heart of the three cops at the center of the movie. Ellroy, in the end, was pleased with their choices.

“They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes,” Ellroy said. “The script is very much about the [characters'] evolution as men and their lives of duress. Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny. I've long held that hard-boiled crime fiction is the history of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority. They stated that case plain.”

Additional Sources:
Inside the Actors Studio: Kevin Spacey (2000)

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