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Columbia Pictures

8 Creative Interpretations of Groundhog Day

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Columbia Pictures

In the 24 years since Groundhog Day’s original release, fans have spent plenty of time and precious web bandwidth attempting to decode the alleged layers that exist just below the surface. Groundhog Day as metaphor? These eight theories say yes.

1. BILL MURRAY IS OUR SAVIOR.

Among the first groups to embrace the message of Groundhog Day were Buddhists, who were moved by its story of rebirth. As part of a talk at New York City’s Hudson Union Society in 2009, director Harold Ramis spoke about the many people who had been moved by the film—including his Zen Buddhist mother-in-law.

She isn’t alone. In an essay entitled “Groundhog Day The Movie, Buddhism and Me,” Spiritual Cinema Circle co-founder Stephen Simon calls the film “a wonderful human comedy about being given the rare opportunity to live several lifetimes all in the same day. Of course, that's not how the film was marketed but, for our purposes, I believe that concept is at the soul of the story.” In an interview with The New York Times, Dr. Angela Zito, co-director of NYU's Center for Religion and Media, noted that the film illustrates the Buddhist idea of samsara, or continuing rebirth. “In Mahayana [Buddhism], nobody ever imagines they are going to escape samsara until everybody else does,” she noted. “That is why you have bodhisattvas, who reach the brink of nirvana, and stop and come back and save the rest of us. Bill Murray is the bodhisattva. He is not going to abandon the world. On the contrary, he is released back into the world to save it.”

2. PUNXSUTAWNEY PHIL IS JESUS CHRIST RESURRECTED.

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Bill Murray isn’t the only seemingly otherworldly figure in Groundhog Day. In the same New York Times feature, film critic Michael Bronski noted the Christ-like attributes assigned to Punxsutawney Phil (yes, the groundhog) in the film. “The groundhog is clearly the resurrected Christ, the ever hopeful renewal of life at springtime, at a time of pagan-Christian holidays,” he noted.

3. PUNXSUTAWNEY IS PURGATORY.

In the space between heaven and hell, according to Catholic Church doctrine, is purgatory. And in Groundhog Day, purgatory is the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania itself—a place where Phil Connors must undergo his own brand of purification in order to decide the fate of his afterlife. Blogger Jim Ciscell scoured the Internet to come up with the “Top 10 Reasons Why the Movie Groundhog Day is Actually Set in Purgatory,” which includes Connors’ own assertion in the film that he is “a god.”

4. IT’S A METAPHOR FOR JUDAISM.

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Dr. Niles Goldstein, a rabbi at New York City’s New Shul congregation, sees Connors’ actions as specifically geared toward Judaism, citing the fact that his good deeds beget more good deeds, as opposed to a place in heaven or state of nirvana. “The movie tells us, as Judaism does, that the work doesn't end until the world has been perfected,” Goldstein told The New York Times.

5. IT’S A METAPHOR FOR PSYCHOANALYSIS.

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There aren’t a lot of Hollywood comedies that have gained analytical attention from the psychiatric community—and psychoanalysts in particular. In his talk at the Hudson Union Society, Ramis recalled the number of psychiatric professionals who told him that, “Obviously the movie’s a metaphor for psychoanalysis, because we revisit the same stories and keep reliving these same patterns in our life. And the whole goal of psychoanalysis is to break those patterns of behavior.”

The comparisons have continued. In 2006, the International Journal of Psychoanalysis printed an essay entitled, “Revisiting Groundhog Day: Cinematic Depiction of Mutative Process,” which explained that the film “shows us a man trapped by his narcissistic defenses. The device of repetition becomes a representation of developmental arrest and closure from object relatedness. Repetition also becomes a means of escape from his characterological dilemma. The opportunity to redo and learn from experience—in particular, to love and learn through experience with a good object—symbolizes the redemptive, reparative possibilities in every life.”

6. IT’S A PERFECT COMPARISON FOR MILITARY BOREDOM.

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Shortly after the film’s release, members of the military began using the term “Groundhog Day” as slang, in reference to the monotony of their days. In 1994, the crew of the USS Saratoga, who were deployed to the Adriatic Sea, nicknamed their post “Groundhog Station” for this very reason. In 1996, while speaking to American troops at Tuzla Airfield in Bosnia, then-President Bill Clinton showed he was hip to the lingo (but in a Commander in Chief kind of way) when he noted that, “I am told that some of you have compared life here with the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day, where the same day keeps repeating itself over and over and over again. I'm also told that there are really only two kinds of weather conditions here in Tuzla. When it snows, the mud freezes, and when it rains, the mud thaws. Even the dining hall apparently is in on the act, dishing out the same food every morning and night.” The phrase took a turn for the formal when it was included in The Oxford Handbook of Military Psychology, which contains a chapter on “Boredom: Groundhog Day as Metaphor for Iraq.”

7. GROUNDHOG DAY AS ECONOMIC THEORY.

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In 2006, economist D. W. MacKenzie published an article on “The Economics of Groundhog Day,” noting that the movie “illustrates the importance of the Mises-Hayek paradigm as an alternative to equilibrium economics by illustrating the unreal nature of equilibrium theorizing.” Say what?

“In economic terms the final reliving of the day constitutes what economists refer to as a perfectly competitive equilibrium based on perfect information,” MacKenzie goes on to explain. “With full knowledge of how to realize every possible gain during this day, Connors is able take advantage of every opportunity for gain. The difference between his first time through the day and his final reliving are dramatic. While this is of course only a movie, it does serve to illustrate the wide gulf between the economists' notion of perfectly competitive equilibrium and reality.”

8. IT’S A SELF-HELP BIBLE.

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For motivational speaker Paul Hannam, the key to self-fulfillment can be found in Groundhog Day’s 101 minutes. His book, The Magic of Groundhog Day, forms the basis of his transformative program of self-improvement, which promises to help its users “learn how to unlock the magic of the movie to transform your life at home and at work” and to “break free from repetitive thoughts and behaviors that keep you stuck in a rut.”

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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