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The Truth Behind 10 Movie Urban Legends

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clowSometimes, the myths surrounding movies are so strong that it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. Here are 10 movie urban legends, debunked.

1. The Wizard of Oz's Munchkin Suicide

The Urban Legend: As Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man head down the yellow brick road, you can see a mysterious figure dangling from a rope in the background. For years it was believed that a lovelorn munchkin hanged himself while the cameras were rolling during production, unbeknownst to the director, various stagehands, and the actors on the screen.

The Truth: What's actually moving in the background is a large exotic bird on loan from the Los Angeles Zoo. The urban legend started when The Wizard of Oz was released on VHS in 1989, and persisted over the decades, until the most recent Blu-ray edition of the American classic reveals the myth as false.

2. Three Men and a Baby's Ghost

The Urban Legend: After Three Men and a Baby was released on VHS in 1990, a legend emerged—about an hour into the movie, Jack Holden (Ted Danson) and his mother (Celeste Holm) are walking through Jack’s house with his newly found baby girl. In the background, you can see a mysterious figure behind the curtains of one of the windows. It was believed that this figure was the ghost of a boy who used to live in the house where Three Men and a Baby was being shot. The most common myth is that the boy committed suicide with a shotgun, which is why the house was vacant for the movie shoot.

The Truth: The mysterious figure behind the curtain is a cardboard cutout of Danson's character wearing a top hat and tails; it was used as a prop for a storyline that was eventually cut out of the movie. The house is also not a real house, but a set on a soundstage in Toronto.

3. Back To The Future Part II's Hoverboards

The Urban Legend: After the release of Back To The Future Part II in 1989, children and teenagers left movie theaters across the country wanting the Mattel Hoverboards featured in the sequel film. The film’s star Michael J. Fox and director Robert Zemeckis even stated that the Hoverboards were real and the only reason why they’re not available to buy were parents’ groups were worried that children might get hurt riding them.

The Truth: Zemeckis later admitted that all the flying sequences from the sequel were made possible through various special effects.

4. The Lion King's Naughty Sky Spelling

The Urban Legend: When The Lion King was first released on VHS in 1995, many viewers discovered the word “S-E-X” spelled out in dust after Simba flopped down on a mountain’s edge. Conservative activists protested Disney claiming that the movie studio was promoting sexual activities through a subliminal message in the film.

The Truth: In reality, the letter grouping was intended to spell out “S-F-X” as an Easter egg for the animation effects team who worked on the Disney film.

5. Poltergeist's Ghost Director

The Urban Legend: Although Tobe Hooper is credited as the official director of the 1982 horror film Poltergeist, it is widely believed that the film’s producer, Steven Spielberg, directed a majority of the movie.

At the time, Spielberg's contract with Universal Studios contained a clause that didn’t allow him to direct another movie while preparing for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Some questioned Spielberg’s role on Poltergeist when reports emerged that Spielberg was a more vocal and active presence than Hooper while on set.

Spielberg always clarified that Hooper wasn’t a take-charge kind of guy and if a problem occurred during production, he would step in with Hooper’s consent. The actors in the film seem to be divided on who the real director was: Some would say Hooper played an active role, while others contend Spielberg made adjustments after Hooper set up camera shots and scenes.

The Truth: The fact of the matter is that Tobe Hooper is Poltergeist’s official director, while Steven Spielberg was the film’s creative force and producer.

6. Ben-Hur's Chariot Race Death

The Urban Legend: During Ben-Hur’s iconic chariot race sequence, it was believed that one of the stuntmen driving a chariot was accidentally killed while filming the race. The footage was left in the final version of the film against the wishes of the stuntman’s widow.

The Truth: The only record of someone dying during the production of Ben-Hur in 1958 was one of the film’s producers, Sam Zimbalist, who died of a heart attack at age 54 while on set.

7. The Day The Clown Cried's Shelving

  

The Legend: In 1972, Jerry Lewis directed and starred in a film about a German clown who was jailed as a political prisoner at a Nazi camp during World War II. Lewis never released the movie, and rumors swirled that it was because he was embarrassed of the final product. To this day, The Day The Clown Cried has never been released in theaters and has only been screened for a small handful of people.

The Truth: The truth is that The Day the Clown Cried has been in heavy litigation since it went into production in 1972; in fact, Jerry Lewis, the film’s producer Nat Wachsberger, and the source material’s author Joan O’Brien couldn't come to financial terms during the film’s production in Sweden that would allow the movie to be released. Wachsberger was unable to secure the film rights from O’Brien and ran out of money before the film could be completed, so Lewis had to put up the money out of his own pocket to finish The Day The Clown Cried.

The Swedish government seized footage of the film when O’Brien filed the lawsuit, but Lewis managed to smuggle the final reel of the film out of the country. A behind-the-scenes film from The Day The Clown Cried remains the only footage available to publicly watch. According to Lewis's official website, "The film has been tied up in litigation ever since, and all of the parties involved have never been able to reach an agreeable settlement. Jerry hopes to someday complete the film, which remains to this day, a significant expression of cinematic art, suspended in the abyss of international litigation."

8. The Shining's Director Also Directed the Moon Landing

The Legend: Since The Shining was released on VHS, there have been many conspiracy theories and urban legends surrounding the true meaning behind Stanley Kubrick’s horror film. The most interesting of them all is that Stanley Kubrick faked the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969 and his film from 1980 is his confession.

The urban legend suggests that the U.S. government approached Kubrick after the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. Kubrick’s realistic approach to space exploration impressed government officials, so they felt Stanley Kubrick was the right fit to fake the Moon landing. According to the urban legend, there are many clues in The Shining that “prove” Stanley Kubrick faked the entire lunar mission. A majority of these clues are included in the documentary Room 237.

The Truth: The reality is that NASA landed two astronauts on the Moon on July 20, 1969—they even left some reflectors up there—and Stanley Kubrick had nothing to do with the mission.

9. Goldfinger's Death by Gold Body Paint

The Legend: In 1964, the third film in the James Bond film series featured the death of a young woman by the hand of her evil employer Auric Goldfinger. The woman was covered in gold paint, which led to her eventual asphyxiation. It was believed at the time of the film that the woman, actress Shirley Eaton, died because she covered her entire body in paint.

The belief was that the paint would cover and clog all your pores and you would slowly suffocate because the body “breathes” through your skin. To prevent death, it was important to leave a small part of your body unpainted.

The Truth: The reality is that painting your body would not lead to death. If it did, you’d have to wear the body paint for a prolonged period of time, as your body would suffer from overheating rather than asphyxiation.

10. The Blair Witch Project was a real documentary

The Legend: Footage from three student filmmakers who went missing while making a documentary about the Blair Witch legend (supposedly found one year after they disappeared) was presented as a real documentary. 

The film’s distributor, Artisan Entertainment, played along with the urban legend and centered all the film’s promotional materials with the idea that it was an actual documentary and not a fictional film. The urban legend marketing worked—The Blair Witch Project grossed $248.6 million worldwide against a $60,000 production budget.

The Truth: After its release, it was revealed that The Blair Witch Project was a fictional film from the minds of the film’s writers and directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. The three student filmmakers were young actors Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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