Original image
Getty Images

11 Debut Films of Famous Directors

Original image
Getty Images

Even the most cinematically inclined of us may not have heard of the debut films of some of today’s most well-known directors. Before Jaws, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars, these highly regarded directors made some films that don’t always fit in with the content or caliber of their later works. Read on to learn about the science fiction films, questionable sequels, and made-for-TV movies that paved the way for some of the most successful directors of the past hundred years.

1. Steven Spielberg, Duel (1971)

While Spielberg had directed several episodes of popular TV shows in the late ‘60s and very early ‘70s (and made a movie called Firelight for just $500 when he was 18), Duel was his first standalone feature-length film. Though it was broadcast as a TV movie in the United States, this story of a murderous truck received a theatrical release in Europe. The entire film consists of the Peterbilt 281 tanker, whose driver is never fully in view, attempting to run a terrified traveling salesman off the road. Though the salesman gets the upper hand in the end, he never does figure out the story behind the driver (truck?) who was to determined to see him dead. It’s safe to say he didn’t risk cutting anyone off for a long time afterward.

2. Peter Jackson, Bad Taste (1987)

Like Jackson’s other splatter horror comedy Braindead (or Dead Alive, if you’re watching it in North America), Bad Taste is not for the faint of heart—or stomach. This alien invasion movie features lots of alien-on-human eating, human-on-alien eating, and general guts and gore that led to numerous cut versions of the film being played in various countries. Over the years, Bad Taste has become a cult film of sorts, which is an achievement in and of itself considering the low budget used to produce the film and the fact that most roles were played by Jackson and his friends.

3. Danny Boyle, Shallow Grave (1994)

Boyle, who would go on to direct such popular movies as Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and Slumdog Millionaire, began his directorial work—and his professional relationship with Ewan McGregor—with this dark comedy. A tale of friendship, betrayal, money, and murder, Shallow Grave helped launch the careers of McGregor and Christopher Eccleston, who would go on to play the ninth incarnation of the Doctor in Doctor Who.

4. Cecil B. DeMille, The Squaw Man (1914)

This silent western movie adapted from the play of the same name was DeMille’s first attempt at directing and producing. It holds the distinction of being the first feature-length film made in Hollywood, save for harbor scenes and a few others requiring varied landscapes. DeMille must have harbored an affection for The Squaw Man as he went on to film it twice more in the form of a 1918 silent remake and a 1931 talkie.

5. Stanley Kubrick, Fear and Desire (1953)

Kubrick’s first feature film came two years after he directed documentaries on Irish-American boxer Walter Cartier and New Mexican priest Father Fred Stadtmuller. Fear and Desire exudes an air of ambiguity throughout as it follows a group of soldiers, one of whom is clearly unstable, in a war between two unnamed countries. With a budget of $10,000 largely raised by family and friends, the film was lauded as a success—though not a financial one. After its initial showings, Kubrick tried to prevent it from being seen again, going so far as to call the film “a bumbling amateur film exercise.”

6. Francis Ford Coppola, Dementia 13 (1963)

Known in the United Kingdom as The Haunted and the Hunted, Dementia 13 was Coppola’s first mainstream directorial attempt after working on several nude films. Producer Roger Corman initially brought in Coppola to make a gothic Psycho-esque movie, but during production stages the two disagreed so violently as to lead Corman to bring in another director to shoot additional scenes. Upon release, the film received mixed reviews and currently has 65 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Not bad for a cheap remake about a murderous lunatic.

7. James Cameron, Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)

Cameron has come quite a long way in the visual effects department since his debut. Piranha II, also known as Flying Killers, is the story of a school of piranha living in the wreckage of a ship in the Caribbean. The movie is exactly what you’d expect a sequel of the original Piranha to be: namely, man-eating, flying fish killing lots of people.

8. George Lucas, THX 1138 (1971)

Rising from the ashes of his 1967 student film Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, this film depicts a world in which drugs are mandatory, sex is banned, and the few who rebel are sent to a limbo-like prison even fewer attempt to escape. The film currently holds a rating on Rotten Tomatoes of 90 percent—higher than all but two of the Star Wars movies.

9. John Carpenter, Dark Star (1974)

Described by Carpenter as “Waiting for Godot in space,” Dark Star is a dark science fiction comedy surrounding a bored crew’s travels through space. Most of the film consists of the crew members’ attempts to fill their time with stargazing, target practice, making music, or chasing a small alien around the ship. (Interestingly enough, this alien would later be the inspiration for the much more frightening one in Ridley Scott’s Alien, which was written by Carpenter’s co-writer, Dan O’Bannon.) Dark Star ends in a kind of philosophical tailspin. Note: Don’t teach Cartesian doubt to sentient bombs.

10. Ridley Scott, The Duellists (1977)

This movie, which won the Best Debut Film award at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, could not have been more different from the movies for which Scott is most famous. It is based on Joseph Conrad’s short story The Duel, and it features Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine as enemies in Strasbourg in the early 1800s. Praised for its historical accuracy, The Duellists marked the beginning of a varied and successful career for Scott, who would go on to make the aforementioned Alien as well as Thelma & Louise, Blade Runner, and Black Hawk Down.

11. Christopher Nolan, Following (1998)

Like others on this list, Nolan was working on an extremely short budget with his first film. He paid for the 16mm film out of his own pocket, and he insisted on extensively rehearsed scenes so as to not require numerous takes. Additionally, he largely eschewed professional film lighting in favor of whatever light was readily available. The black-and-white movie involves a young writer who makes a habit of following strangers, only to one day become engrossed in following a man who ends up confronting him. Seduced by this man’s dangerous lifestyle, the protagonist turns to a life of crime that ultimately derails and leaves him the victim of his fellow thieves’ manipulation.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
Original image

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]