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18 Facts About The Silence of the Lambs

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Believe it or not, The Silence of the Lambs was released on Valentine’s Day in 1991. The movie was scheduled for release in the middle of February because Orion Pictures, its distributor, already had a can't-miss hit with Dances With Wolves, and they wanted to give Kevin Costner as little competition as possible for the 1991 awards season. The strategy paid off, as Wolves won seven Oscars. But one year later, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences didn’t—and/or couldn’t—forget about Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling. On the occasion of the film's 25th anniversary, here are 18 things you might not have known about The Silence of the Lambs.

1. IT’S THE THIRD FILM TO EVER WIN ALL OF THE "BIG FIVE" OSCARS—BEST PICTURE, ACTOR, ACTRESS, DIRECTOR, AND SCREENPLAY.

The other two were It Happened One Night in 1935, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1976.

2. GENE SISKEL GAVE IT A THUMBS DOWN.

Gene Siskel infamously didn’t see what all the fuss was about, dismissing the movie as a “star-studded freak show” and writing that The Silence of the Lambs was “a case of much ado about nothing.” The Oscars, and Roger Ebert, disagreed.

3. THE RIGHTS TO HANNIBAL LECTER WERE GIVEN AWAY FOR FREE.

Michael Mann's movie Manhunter (1986) was based on Thomas Harris’ 1981 novel Red Dragon, the first of four books featuring the most infamous psychiatrist/cannibal in the world. Manhunter barely made half of its budget back at the box office, so producer Dino De Laurentiis gave away the rights he had for Lecter to The Silence of the Lambs producers gratis. Lecter’s second movie ended up making $272.7 million, about $264 million more than his first.

4. GENE HACKMAN WAS INITIALLY GOING TO STAR AND DIRECT.

Gene Hackman and Orion Pictures split the $500,000 needed to purchase the movie rights to the book. But Hackman dropped out days after he watched clips of himself at the 1989 Oscars as FBI Agent Rupert Anderson in Alan Parker's Mississippi Burning; he decided he didn't want to follow up a dark role with an even more unlikable character.

5. MICHELLE PFEIFFER WAS THE FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY CLARICE.

Jodie Foster initially wanted to buy the film rights to Thomas’ book herself, but Hackman beat her to it. She then settled for fighting for the role of FBI agent Clarice Starling. Director Jonathan Demme wanted Pfeiffer, but like a lot of other actors, she was “concerned about the darkness of the piece.” Demme didn’t like Foster’s Boston accent in her movie The Accused, even though it won her an Oscar, but after meeting the determined actress twice, he changed his mind.

6. FOSTER WAS CONCERNED THAT THE FBI WAS GOING TO LOOK STUPID.

Demme directed the 1988 comedy Married to the Mob (starring Pfeiffer), which didn’t portray the FBI in the smartest light. After the agency impressed Foster with their handling of a death threat against her, they had earned her respect, enough that she approached Demme before filming to make sure that the FBI would be portrayed “in the correct way.”

7. SEAN CONNERY WAS THE FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY LECTER.

Connery read the script and found it “revolting.” Daniel Day-Lewis and Derek Jacobi were also considered.

8. ANTHONY HOPKINS CHANNELED AN AUTHOR, AN ACTRESS, AND A COMPUTER IN PLAYING HANNIBAL.

Truman Capote, Katharine Hepburn, and HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, respectively.

9. HOPKINS USED OUR FEAR OF DOCTORS AND DENTISTS TO RAMP UP THE SCARES.

It was Hopkins’ idea for Lecter to wear white. His theory was that people already have a fear of doctors and dentists who wear white on the job.

10. LECTER NEVER SAID "HELLO, CLARICE."

The line that most people think was a quote is actually, "Good evening, Clarice."

11. THE AUTHOR DID NOT BASE HANNIBAL ON ANYONE.

He was a general composite of all of the evil that Thomas Harris saw while doing research. "There is no one, thank goodness, like him," said FBI profiler John Douglas, the inspiration for Jack Crawford.

12. SCOTT GLENN BROKE DOWN WHILE RESEARCHING HIS ROLE AS CRAWFORD.

Douglas gave Glenn a tour of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia. After hearing tapes of serial killers Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris raping and torturing a 16-year-old girl, Glenn walked out “in tears,” and was suddenly in favor of the death penalty.

13. MOST OF THE FILM WAS SHOT AROUND PITTSBURGH.

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The outside of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane is in fact the exterior of the Western Center Hospital in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. Western Center closed in 2000, but was saved from demolition after it was designated as a historical landmark.

14. BUFFALO BILL’S HOUSE WAS THE HOME OF A HIGH SCHOOL PHYSICS TEACHER.

Bentworth High School’s Harold Lloyd claimed that some crew members were rude, items were stolen, and a security guard was fired for running tours through the house at night. Last summer, the house went up for sale; in January, the price was dropped to $250,000.

15. BUFFALO BILL WAS BASED ON THREE SERIAL KILLERS.

They were Ted Bundy, Gary M. Heidnik, and Ed Gein. Thomas Harris even attended some of Bundy’s murder trial and sent him a copy of Red Dragon.

16. BUFFALO BILL’S DANCE WAS NOT IN THE SCREENPLAY.

But it was in the original book and Ted Levine, the actor who played the serial killer Jame Gumb, insisted that the scene be included because it helped explain the demented character better.

17. LEVINE NEEDED LIQUID COURAGE BEFORE PERFORMING THE DANCE.

Before the big scene, Levine “took a couple shots” of tequila.

18. THE SKULL ON THE MOTH ON THE MOVIE POSTER IS FROM A PHOTO OF SALVADOR DALÍ.

The image is taken from "In Voluptas Mors," a photo of Salvador Dalí posing next to a skull made up of seven naked women. It was inspired by a Dalí sketch and taken by photographer Philippe Halsman.

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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
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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