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11 Things You Might Not Know About Blazing Saddles

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Focusing on the rise of a black sheriff in the American west of 1874, Blazing Saddles is widely regarded as the most audacious comedy of Mel Brooks’ directorial career. A subversive, fearless satire bent on tackling the ever-present absurdity of prejudice, it has maintained an impressive and growing fan-base more than four decades later. Here are some remarkable tidbits about one of the greatest spoofs ever made.

1. The Movie Was Originally Going to be Entitled Tex X: An Homage to Malcolm X

Other rejected titles include Black Bart and The Purple Sage. Brooks struggled to find a better name after he signed on to direct. Eventually, he came up with Blazing Saddles while taking a shower.

2. John Wayne Politely Declined to Appear in the Movie

Hoping to include the Western genre’s most recognizable star, Brooks asked Wayne to read the script. Although the Duke found it hilarious, he chose not to join the cast, fearing for his career. However, Wayne did declare, “I’ll be the first one in line to see it!” 

3. Blazing Saddles was the First Movie to Incorporate Audible Flatulence

Blazing Saddles, for me, was a film that truly broke ground. It also broke wind … and maybe that’s why it broke ground,” Brooks once said. Having noticed that that cowboys generally subsisted on a diet of canned beans in traditional westerns, he argued, “you can only eat so many beans without some noise happening there.” The resulting “fart scene,” in which a gang of thugs pass gas around a campfire, made movie history. Brooks knew this gag would get a big reaction, so he deliberately “made the farts louder” to prevent the audience’s laughter from drowning them out. However, despite his foresight, the offending noises were muted in the Blazing Saddles TV release.

4. The Hulking Henchman “Mongo” was Portrayed by a Former NFL Player

Alex Karras was a defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions who began appearing in films during the early 1960s. (The scene in which Mongo punches out a horse was inspired by Brooks’ former boss, comedian Sid Caesar, who supposedly knocked one unconscious in real life.)

5. Actor Slim Pickens (Taggart) voluntarily slept outside with a Winchester rifle during most of the shoot to get a feel for his character.

See Taggart’s noggin meeting the business end of a shovel in this hilarious (and NSFW) clip:

6. Gene Wilder Was Far From Brooks’ First Choice to Play “The Waco Kid”

“He was magnificent!” Brooks said of Wilder in the 2004 DVD documentary Back in the Saddle. Multiple actors—including Johnny Carson—turned down the part before screen veteran Gig Young was hired for the role. At first Young seemed perfect for the boozy character … until it became painfully clear that he was an actual alcoholic. The performer began violently throwing up all over the set before being rushed to a nearby hospital. Luckily, Wilder knew most of “the Kid’s” lines and took over the part almost immediately.

7. Gene Wilder pitched the premise ofYoung Frankenstein to Brooks on the set one day.

The movie that would become Brooks’ next directorial project began with an idea Wilder approached him about while filming Saddles. “His [premise] was very simple,” Brooks recalls. “What if the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein wanted nothing to do with the family whatsoever? He was ashamed of those wackos. I said, ‘That’s funny.’”

8. Madeline Kahn Earned An Oscar Nomination for Her Portrayal of Saloon Singer Lili von Shtupp.

After being fired from the cast of Mame (1974), she took the part, the first of several she’d be given by Brooks. Kahn also starred in his later films Young Frankenstein (1974) and High Anxiety (1977).

9. World War Z Author Max Brooks (Mel’s Son) was Born During the Movie’s Lengthy Writing Process

Check out Max’s official site here.

10. A Pilot For an Unmade Spinoff TV Series Called Black Bart Was Filmed in 1975.

The episode has been uploaded in full to YouTube. (WARNING: NSFW!)

11. The American Film Institute Called Blazing Saddles the 6th-Greatest American Comedy in 2000.

It was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected for preservation by the National Film Registry six years later. Additionally, former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg cited Blazing Saddles as his all-time favorite film, and the late Roger Ebert gave it a perfect four-star rating, calling it “a crazed grabbag of a movie that does everything to keep us laughing except hit us over the head with a rubber chicken … It’s an audience picture; it doesn’t have a lot of classy polish and its structure is a total mess. But of course! What does that matter when Alex Karras is knocking a horse cold with a right sock to the jaw?”

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

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