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20 Things You Might Not Know About Galaxy Quest

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Fifteen years ago, Galaxy Quest premiered in the U.S., adorably and amusingly skewering the sci-fi movie genre in ways that remain funny and fresh to this day. To celebrate, here are 20 things you might not have known about the movie that proved you don’t have to set out for space on the U.S.S. Enterprise in order to explore brave new worlds.

1. The film had to cut out some salty language in order to get a PG rating

But some of the original dialogue is easy enough to spot. For instance, during a memorable scene, Sigourney Weaver yells, “Screw that!” but her lips are quite clearly saying, “F**k that!”

2. The film took aim at film critics before it even hit the big screen

You know the movie's big baddie, Sarris? He was reportedly named after film critic Andrew Sarris, who was outspoken about his dislike of producer Mark Johnson’s previous effort, The Natural.

3. Alan Rickman’s character was originally a knight

Well, kind of. His Alexander Dane was supposed to have been the recipient of an honorary knighting by Queen Elizabeth, but Rickman himself thought that such an event didn’t jibe with his character. Still, Dane is billed as “Sir Alexander Dane” in the film’s credits.

4. A fake documentary about the film aired on E! in 1999

Galaxy Quest: 20th Anniversary, The Journey Continues” was a mockumentary that (quite effectively) tapped into the movie's universe and attempted to chronicle the making of the fake Galaxy Quest television show that inspired the satirical film.

5. There might still be a sequel

Fans of the film have been begging for a follow-up for years, but recent comments from star Tim Allen hint that something might actually be in the works, nearly twenty years on. At the very least, there are plenty of ideas for the script and other cast members have expressed interest in revisiting the material.

6. It’s the seventh greatest Star Trek movie ever made

At least, according to Trekkers who voted on the matter during the Star Trek 2013 convention in Las Vegas.

7. The film’s aspect ratio changed in theaters to help hammer home the story

In theaters, the first twenty minutes of the film were presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, before blowing out into 2.35:1 when the spaceship lands on Thermia. Eye-popping!

8. The film was one of the first to use its own website

Although you can’t see GalaxyQuest.com anymore, the site was once live, and it amusingly took the whole “fake television show” gag to the next level. Instead of being a standard issue movie website, the page kept up the ruse that Galaxy Quest was a real show with real stars. It even included a giant trove of fake episode guides.

9. The website even invented a fake, superfan webmaster

His name was “Travis Latke,” and no one else loved Galaxy Quest quite as much as he did. The site included references and nods to "Travis," who took the time to thank his mom for paying the website’s server bills.

10. The film’s spaceship includes a nod to Star Trek

The NSEA Protector's serial number is listed as NTE 3120. “NTE” is believed to be short for “Not The Enterprise.”

11. The film was star Justin Long’s feature debut

Hard to believe, especially considering the young co-star had a major role in the final product. Long had previously goofed around with a comedy troupe, but Galaxy Quest was his first actual gig. Not a bad start.

12. It was also Rainn Wilson’s first movie

The Office star appears as one of the aliens in the film, and though his part is mainly confined to background work, he pops up in a number of deleted scenes. This was Wilson’s first feature film work—he had only been credited for a role on the soap opera One Life to Live before landing the part.

13. It was originally known as “Captain Starshine”

And it was set to be directed by Ghostbusters' Harold Ramis. However, Ramis reportedly left the project when they insisted on casting Tim Allen in the lead role.

14. Ramis’ first choice for the part was Kevin Kline

Another option the original director wanted to explore was Alec Baldwin. Disney didn’t dig either choice and Ramis left the film, unhappy with his inability to cast it as he saw fit.

15. The Thermians might be related to another cinematic alien race

The Thermians claim to be from the planet “Klaatu Nebula.” “Klaatu” is the name of the alien from the 1951 alien invasion thriller The Day The Earth Stood Still.

16. The film itself promises a return that also echoes Star Trek

At the end of Galaxy Quest, a trailer touts the return of the fake television series, slated to come back a full eighteen years after the show originally aired. Star Trek also saw an eighteen-year gap between two of its television series (1969 to 1987). Like Galaxy Quest, its film outings were not included in that gap.

17. Tim Allen almost starred in Bicentennial Man instead

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The sci-fi film wound up starring Robin Williams and notoriously bombed at the box office.

18. Long almost lost his role to some other well-known actors

Given his newbie status in the business, it’s no surprise Long almost didn’t snag the part. Other actors auditioned and came close, including Kieran Culkin, Eddie Kaye Thomas, and Tom Everett Scott.

19. You can thank Steven Spielberg for that romantic subplot

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When the director visited the set, he suggested that Missi Pyle’s alien role be expanded, which is why a subplot involving a romance between her and Tony Shaloub was added in.

20. Sigourney Weaver kept her wig when shooting was over

And who can blame her? That thing looked amazing on her.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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