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7 Movie Monsters That Allegedly Represent Communism

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Columbia / Getty Images

Whether by design or the result of over-analyzation, these sci-fi creatures were cited as physical manifestations of communism’s “evil empire” during the Cold War.

1. A Flesh-Eating Mass in The Blob (1958)

Quick Synopsis: An amorphous, crimson monster that gets bigger with every human victim it absorbs besieges rural Pennsylvania. The movie also gives us the jazziest theme song in sci-fi history.

The Communist Subtext: With a villain that’s literally beet-red, many viewers assumed that The Blob was a b-grade commentary on the growing Sino-Soviet “red  menace." Producer Jack Harris later denounced these interpretations as “hogwash.” “Then again,” he conceded, “maybe that’s why it never played in Russia.”

2. A Grotesque Shape-Shifter in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)

Quick Synopsis: A team of scientists stationed in the Antarctic wasteland inadvertently attract a recently-thawed alien parasite that infects and overtakes every living thing it comes across, copying its prey down to the very skin cells.

The Communist Subtext: “[Communists], like victims of the Thing,” wrote Roger Ebert of the story’s political themes in an early review, “looked, sounded, and acted like your best friend, but they were infected with a deadly secret.”

3. A City-Stomping Insect in The Deadly Mantis (1957)

Quick Synopsis: A 400-foot praying mantis attacks the eastern seaboard—and even scales the Washington Monument! Naturally, Mystery Science Theater 3000 couldn’t resist making fun of this one in 1997:

The Communist Subtext: Critic Melvin E. Matthews Jr. believes that the flying beast symbolically stands in for “enemy bombers in the skies above America.” Moreover, he argues that The Deadly Mantis was heavily influenced by a series of Ground Observer Corps pamphlets which predicted an imminent Soviet aerial strike on U.S. soil.

4. Giant, Extraterrestrial Pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Quick Synopsis: Who’s human and who’s an impostor? When pods from beyond the stars land in a small California town, they begin replacing every man, woman, and child in the neighborhood with an emotionless duplicate. Can our brave heroes stop the epidemic, or does this mean the end of the world as we know it?

The Communist Subtext: Like The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is often credited with touting a paranoid, anti-Marxist message. Despite this, longtime producer Walter Mirsh was well-acquainted with the project’s creators and claims that none of them had a political axe to grind or intended it as “anything other than a thriller, pure and simple.”

5. Imperialist Aliens in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)

Quick Synopsis: With a fleet of heavily-armed vessels at their command (impressively animated by the late Ray Harryhausen), a race of malevolent spacemen sets out to conquer our planet.

The Communist Subtext: Alien invasion pictures enjoyed a golden era during the fifties, with The War of the Worlds (1953) leading the way. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, like many of its brethren, pounced on the concept of totalitarian occupation to strike a chord with American moviegoers (one scene even shows a UFO smashing through the Capitol building).

6. Minivan-Sized Ants in Them! (1954)

Quick Synopsis: Nuclear testing in rural New Mexico unleashes a colony of massive, radioactive ants which leave nothing but a trail of destruction and corpses in their wake. The armed forces are called in to destroy this new invertebrate menace before it spreads all the way into the sewers of Los Angeles.

The Communist Subtext: Warner Brothers’ press agents smelled a way to capitalize on anti-Russian hysteria and promote their movie in one star-spangled swoop. The plan was simple: Real-life military agencies would be invited to put recruiting booths in movie theater lobbies nationwide. Once there, they’d be given signs which read, “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by Them?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!” Eventually, however, this idea was scrapped.

7. Murderous Plants in The Day of the Triffids (1962)

Quick Synopsis: A plague of epidemic blindness descends upon the Earth just as hordes of poison-spewing plants known as “Triffids” begin crawling across Europe.

The Communist Subtext: The gritty, post-apocalyptic tone invites obvious comparisons to nuclear warfare. The Day of the Triffids was inspired by a book of the same name written by novelist John Wyndham in 1951. Though neither version fully explains where these botanical anomalies came from, in Wyndham’s original page-turner it’s revealed that they were bred by the Soviet Union for reasons unknown. As for the movie, it was written (ironically) by a former communist party member named Bernard Gordon, who’d been blacklisted for his views during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s notorious “witch hunt” a few years earlier.

BONUS: Kim Jong-il’s “Communist Godzilla Movie”

North Korea’s previous dictator also fancied himself a film buff extraordinaire (unsurprisingly, he was also the country’s “number one movie critic”). In fact, the man directly produced several pictures during his rule, including a little gem dubbed Pulgasari (1985). The movie stars an overgrown reptile that rises from the ocean and lays waste to large cities. Sound familiar? Some of the Japanese special effects artists who’d worked on The Return of Godzilla (1984) were brought in to help King Jong-il complete his cinematic vision. A violent brute who greedily devours precious resources, the Pulgasari monster was intended to represent the horrors of capitalism gone haywire.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]