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14 Things You Might Not Know About Spaceballs

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Mel Brooks hadn’t directed a movie in six years when he committed to 1987’s Spaceballs, a joke-saturated spoof of Star Wars and other popular genre films of the era. Critics speculated he was a little too late—Return of the Jedi had been released four years prior—and box office at the time was modest, but Spaceballs has since earned its reputation as a cult hit. Force yourself to check out these 14 facts about the Schwartz, robotic ears, and the search for Spaceballs II.

1. It Wasn’t the First Star Wars Parody Film.

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Amateur filmmaker Ernie Fosselius was so enamored with Star Wars in 1977 that he cobbled together a 12-minute short, Hardware Wars, which he shot for just $8,000 in an abandoned laundromat. The film embraced its piddling budget by featuring toasters, flashlights, and bits of tin foil to substitute for space debris. Charmingly hokey, Hardware Wars became immensely profitable, earning roughly $500,000 in 1978, and was even declared a “cute little film” by George Lucas. Fosselius had offers to extend it to feature length, but passed; he would later seem slightly perturbed by Spaceballs, saying it "quoted" his efforts.

2. Brooks Wanted To Call It Planet Moron.

In the commissary at the 20th Century Fox lot in 1984, Brooks was sitting down to eat when a studio executive abruptly asked what his next project was going to be. “Planet Moron!” Brooks yelled back, possibly referring to his unsolicited interrogator. The title spurred Brooks and his collaborators to develop what would become Spaceballs. Planet Moron was abandoned when a film titled Morons from Outer Space was released; Spaceballs, despite the assumed innuendo, was a result of needing “space” in the title and Brooks considering it one of his trademark “screwball” comedies.

3. Lucas Gave His (Conditional) Blessing.

Satire is generally exempt from litigation, but Brooks was an admirer of Lucas’s work and wanted to get his permission before starting on the movie. Working on a “funny” film of his own with Howard the Duck, Lucas agreed, but only on the condition that no Spaceballs merchandising be made available. “The Lucas people were just upset about one aspect of Spaceballs,” Brooks told Starlog in 1987. “They didn’t think it was fair for us to do a take-off and then merchandise the characters.”  

4. It Was Shot Over a Giant Swimming Pool.

Michael Winslow, best known as the “sound effects guy” from the Police Academy series, said in 2012 that Spaceballs was shot on the MGM lot in Culver City, California. In the heyday of movies focused on swimmers like Esther Williams, the studio had constructed a giant pool that could be covered with retractable flooring. Spaceballs also used the same sound stage as 1939’s The Wizard of Oz; the crew would occasionally see stray pieces of the Yellow Brick Road when milling around.

5. Bill Pullman was Brooks’ Third Choice.

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According to Pullman, the actor—who had not yet had a starring role—was approached by Brooks only after Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks turned down the role of Lone Starr, the Han Solo-esque lead of the film. Pullman said that hiring Rick Moranis and John Candy freed Brooks up to cast a relative unknown.  

6. The Crew Thought Green Screen Work Might Damage Their Eyes.

Spaceballs took its effects seriously, and the cast and crew needed to spend a lot of time in front of a green screen. At the time, the process was still relatively new, and the production had a suspicion that the environment might be damaging to a person’s eyesight. With this (unfounded) concern in mind, Pullman and the cast wore sunglasses in between shots.

7. Brooks Had a Bad Reaction To his Yogurt Make-Up.

In addition to directing and co-writing, Brooks had two roles in the film: one as President Skroob and another as Yogurt, a diminutive Yoda equivalent. In 2012, Brooks told The AV Club that he had an allergic reaction to the latex, which created a rash that spread to his eyes. Brooks also only gave the team one hour to apply his make-up; if it took any longer, he insisted he'd get out of the chair and leave.    

8. Dot Matrix Was a Famous Mime.

Voiced by Joan Rivers, the service robot Dot Matrix was actually inhabited by Lorene Yarnell, one part of the largely-forgotten mime duo of Shields and Yarnell. The two had a variety show in the 1970s that featured a recurring skit called the Clinkers, a robot couple that allowed the performers to show off some impressively stilted moves. (In real life, Shields and Yarnell were married for a time; their ceremony was performed in pantomime.)

9. The Guy Playing Pizza the Hutt Refused to Come Back.

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Though Dom DeLuise voiced Jabba stand-in Pizza the Hutt for the film, he was not required—nor was he likely willing—to be covered in pounds of fake molten cheese. That honor went to actor/effects man Richard Karen. When additional shooting was required, however, Karen simply refused to climb back into the suit. Effects artist Rick Lazzarini took his place.

10. Barf’s Ears Upstaged the Actors.

John Candy, who played half-dog/half-man Barf, was usually trailed on-set by Lazzarini and the effects crew, who had to control both his tail and his ears. At one point, Lazzarini was told by Brooks that he didn’t “have to move the ears so much!” They were too active in scenes focused on other characters. (Candy, incidentally, performed with a 40-pound battery backpack strapped to him to control the animatronics.)

11. Lucas Loved It, Perhaps Because Brooks Paid Him Off.

One of Brooks’s strategies to ensure continued cooperation from Lucasfilm was to book their services for post-production work worth nearly $5 million. “You know what I did not to have any real trouble?” Brooks said. “I called Lucas and I said, ‘I want you guys up in San Francisco—at the ranch or whatever—to do all the post-production of the movie.’ And he said, ‘Oh, great, great.’” Lucas later wrote Brooks a note saying how much he loved the movie.

12. R.L. Stine Wrote the Novelization.

Film comedies—particularly those relying on broad, visual gags—are rarely fodder for tie-in novelizations, but perhaps that was the joke. To accompany the release of the film, a pre-Goosebumps R.L. Stine wrote Spaceballs: The Book, a young adult version of the story that substituted some of the stronger language and bits for child-friendly content. It remains the only exclusion to Lucasfilm’s “no tie-in” mandate.

13. The Animated Series Spoofed the Prequel Trilogy.

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While Spaceballs performed modestly during its initial release, it has been “rediscovered” by audiences by following in the wake of persistent interest in all things Star Wars. When Lucasfilm’s prequel trilogy was wrapping up in 2005, Brooks produced and directed a 13-episode season of Spaceballs: The Animated Series; Daphne Zuniga (Princess Vespa) and Joan Rivers (Dot Matrix) were, along with Brooks, the only returning cast members.  

14. Rick Moranis Was Offered a Sequel.

Moranis, who played Dark Helmet, retired from acting in the 1990s to focus on his family and his musical career. In 2013, he told Heeb magazine that Brooks was interested in a sequel, which Moranis suggested could be titled Spaceballs III: The Search for Spaceballs II. (The film had, by this point, done very well on home video.) Brooks was only lukewarm on the idea, and Moranis found the financial offer underwhelming.

Brooks, who has never done a sequel, joked during the film’s production that a follow-up would be titled Spaceballs II: The Search for More Money.

Additional Sources:
Starlog #119; Starlog #121.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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