CLOSE
Original image
Jasi Lanier

Jasi Lanier, The Walking Dead's "Stunt Zombie"

Original image
Jasi Lanier

For as long as Sallie Mae has been loaning money to college students, entrepreneurial graduates have been concocting new and innovative ways to get their debt paid off. For USC Media Arts alum Jasi Lanier, the solution was simple: fire-eating for dollars. 

The Pittsburgh native acted and modeled as well, and served as the inspiration for a number of romance novel covers and comics, even playing muse to artist Joe Jusko for his work on the Tomb Raider series. (Take that, Angelina Jolie!) But Lanier’s taste for danger eventually overpowered her desire to stand still in front of the camera. Inspired by Dusty Russell (a.k.a. Dusty from Dallas), her uncle and a well-known daredevil in the 1960s, and some articles she had read about professional stuntwomen in Femme Fatales magazine, Lanier decided that it was time to kick ass for a living. Literally.

Now more than a decade into her career, Lanier has amassed nearly 50 stunt credits in films such as Identify Thief, Sinister, and Alice in Wonderland, and become a regular player on the small screen, from iCarly to Criminal Minds. She has also appeared in several episodes of The Walking Dead, where she holds the fascinating title of “stunt zombie.”

Just ahead of The Walking Dead’s fourth-season debut, we spoke with Lanier about getting started in the stunt game, the great men-versus-women in Hollywood debate, and exactly what it takes to become a “walker” on AMC’s mega-hit series.

How does one go about becoming a stuntwoman?
It is different for everyone in how they come into the business; there is no one set way. I moved to California and did whatever I could to get on sets—background work, stand-in, PA. I would ask stunt people questions. I got my SAG card and was invited to [famed stuntman] Bob Yerkes’ backyard. [Stunt coordinator] John Moio saw me sword fighting and got me my first gig doubling Nathan Kress on iCarly for the “iFence” episode.

What sort of training is involved and where do you get it?
Training is endless in stunts: gymnastics, fights, weapons, bikes, cars, scuba, horses, wirework, and fire. There isn’t one place to get training for stunts. Much of the best training is invitation only. [It’s] tough to get into, but worth every minute of it. 

What are your specialties?
I don't know if I have a specialty. I try to be an all-around stuntwoman and am always looking to broaden my skills. 

What are the skills that are most in demand for film and television today?
It depends on the show. Hitting the ground, fights, and car work are always on the top of the list.

What role does fear play in your professional life on a daily basis?
You are overcoming your fears for sure, whether it be heights, fire, etc.

Like in so many sectors of the entertainment industry, women are the minority in the stunt world. What’s the biggest challenge of being a female stunt person?
The biggest challenge is that 95 percent of the jobs are still for men … and there are more stuntwomen than ever, so the competition is tough. Secondly, our wardrobe doesn’t often allow for pads like men, so we definitely take some pretty hard bumps.

How did you get involved with The Walking Dead?
I met the stunt coordinator, Russell Towery, and gratefully got called to work.

So far you’ve worked on three episodes of the show, where you’ve served as a “stunt zombie.” What exactly does that entail?
What it entails is three hours in the makeup chair and nailing your zombie walk/movement.

What’s your most memorable moment or scene from the series?
My most memorable was from this season. [But] I signed a non-disclosure, so I cannot discuss it until it airs.

What’s the one stunt you have yet to perform on-screen but are dying to do?
I really look forward to doing car crashes and flips.

What’s up next for you?
Up next is stunts on Fast & Furious 7, stunt acting on the horror flick Convergence, and more mayhem on the Nickelodeon show Sam & Cat.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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
iStock
Animals
arrow
Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image
iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES