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15 Things You May Not Have Known About Conan the Barbarian

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You already know Arnold looks like a million bucks in Conan, but these facts may help you appreciate his sword-wielding majesty in a new light.

1. The film’s opening Nietzsche epigraph is misquoted. The original quote is “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.” The movie’s quote is actually, weirdly enough, a paraphrase of Nietzsche that Watergate break-in mastermind G. Gordon Liddy made during his autobiography book tour in 1980.

2. Conan the Barbarian is co-written by Wall Street and Platoon director Oliver Stone, who himself was originally slated to co-direct. Other directors on the short list for the job—before it was given to John Milius—were John Frankenheimer, Sam Peckinpah, Alan Parker, and Ridley Scott.

3. Milius originally knew nothing about the Conan the Barbarian character, and signed on to direct because he always wanted to make a Viking movie.

4. Milius’ original storyline for Conan was a trilogy involving a sword metaphor. The first was about the strength of the sword, the second was about how to wield the sword, and the third was about the consequences the sword wrought. To date, Milius has only been involved with one Conan movie. A sequel, Conan the Destroyer, was released in 1984 and a reboot, also called Conan the Barbarian, came out in 2011.

5. Charles Bronson and Sylvester Stallone both turned down the Conan role.

6. Producers met Arnie when he was doing press for the film Pumping Iron, and thought he was perfect for the look of the barbarian.

7. Thulsa Doom, the evil sorcerer played by James Earl Jones, was originally a character in “Kull the Conqueror,” another pulp fiction series from Conan creator Robert E. Howard. Milius wanted Jones’ character to resemble the last member of an otherworldly race that had all but died out.

8. The name of Conan’s female companion Valeria, played by actress Sandahl Bergman, is never said during the film. Bergman was cast because director John Milius saw her as a dancer in director Bob Fosse’s film All That Jazz, and Milius thought she could give the rough and tumble Valeria a ballerina’s sense of movement.

9. Bergman’s finger was nearly cut off during a fight scene. Instead of asking if the actress was okay, Milius allegedly shouted, “Valeria [her character] would never let that happen!” Schwarzenegger seriously injured his knee on set when he was thrown from a horse. Despite barely being able to walk, the real-life tough guy finished the last weeks of shooting.

10. Schwarzenegger was originally supposed to narrate the film. Producers switched the duties over fear his accent was too thick.

11. The production was slated to be shot entirely in Yugoslavia, where pre-production was set up for four months—but the country’s uneasy political atmosphere caused filming to be delayed for six months before the production moved to Spain.

12. The film was shot in Spain’s Madrid and Almeria regions over five months.

13. The two primary swords in the film—Conan’s father’s sword and the sword he takes from the Atlantean skeleton—were real 9-pound carbon steel swords that cost $100,000 each to create. They were made with blunt edges for safety reasons.  Fiberglass and aluminum copies were made of each for fight scenes.

14. The three main actors underwent a grueling two-hours-a-day, three-days-a-week fight training regimen for five months straight, taught by martial arts master Kiyoshi Yamazaki. Yamazaki makes an appearance in the film as Conan’s sword instructor from the East.

15. Schwarzenegger did all of his own stunts—the filmmakers were unable to find a matching body double his size.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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