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How Rocky Turned the Common Man Into a Hero

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Sylvester Stallone wasn’t born a leading man. Complications at birth left the son of a hairdresser with nerve damage that slurred his speech and curled his lips into a permanent snarl. His childhood wasn’t easy. His parents fought constantly, and he and his brother slipped in and out of foster care. By high school, they’d moved back in with their mother in Philadelphia, but Stallone’s emotional problems followed him. He struggled academically and was expelled from multiple schools. The arts became his refuge. He spent his free time painting and writing poetry, but his real dream was the silver screen. By the time he was 18, he knew he wanted to act.

Stallone studied drama at the American College of Switzerland and then at the University of Miami, but then abandoned school to pursue a career in New York City. By his mid-twenties, he was getting by on odd jobs like cleaning lion cages and ushering at movie theaters. The bit parts he did manage to land were few and far between. Once, when funds were short, he took a role in an adult film to keep from living in a bus station. When Stallone landed bigger parts, it was because his drooping, stone-chiseled face made him the perfect heavy (Subway Thug No. 1. wasn’t an uncommon credit). By 1975, the 29-year-old actor was desperate for something bigger, so his agent sent him to the L.A. offices of Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, two producers who had a standing deal with United Artists.

The meeting didn’t go as planned. When Winkler and Chartoff met Stallone, they didn’t see a movie star. Dejected, Stallone had his hand on the doorknob when he turned and made one last pitch. “You know,” he said, “I also write.”

The script Stallone turned in was an underdog tale, the story of Rocky, a streetwise palooka who gets an unlikely opportunity to fight the heavyweight champion of the world. But the story of how the film itself got made is even more improbable.

Earlier that same year, a boxer named Chuck Wepner had silenced the world. Pitted 40:1 against the heavily favored Muhammad Ali, Wepner landed a blow that knocked Ali down. Though Ali ultimately knocked out Wepner in the 15th round, Stallone was riveted by those moments in which it seemed like Wepner stood a chance. When he sat down to write a screenplay, it took him just three days to dash it off.

Stallone centered his story around Rocky Balboa, a club boxer plucked from obscurity and eager to go the distance. But Rocky would have the odds stacked against him. Even his trainer, a salty old cynic named Mickey, would write him off—until a once-in-a-lifetime chance to fight against brash champion (and Ali stand-in) Apollo Creed arises.

To ground his story, Stallone drummed up a love interest for Rocky: Adrian, a shy pet store employee. The unlikely romance allowed the film to become as much a character study as a genre slugfest. But when Stallone’s wife, Sasha, read an early draft, she pushed him to sand down his hero’s rough edges even more. In the rewrites, Rocky, who had started out as a violent thug, emerged as a gentle and deceptively wise soul who, in the actor’s words, “was good-natured, even though nature had never been good to him.”

Impressed by the story’s heart, Winkler and Chartoff agreed to produce the film with United Artists, which gave them creative freedom for any picture budgeted under $1.5 million. But the studio balked. A boxing picture and all its trappings—extras, location, and arena shooting—just couldn’t be made for so little money. And with a nobody in the lead role, the flick seemed doomed to box office failure. Chartoff and Winkler countered by offering to make the movie for less than a million, promising to cover any overages out of pocket, and the producers sent the studio a print of Stallone’s recent independent film, The Lords of Flatbush, to seal the deal. With no one in the screening room to recognize him, the executives assumed handsome costar Perry King was the young nobody who had written the script.

Fine, they said. Go make your boxing movie.

The small budget meant that the production team had to get creative. Interiors were shot in L.A., since a full 28-day shoot in Philadelphia was too pricey. Instead, the team spent less than a week on location, quietly shooting exteriors using a nonunion crew. Driving around in a nondescript van, director John Avildsen would spot an interesting locale—a portside ship, a food market—and usher Stallone out to jog, sometimes for miles, while he rolled film. It wasn’t long before the actor gave up smoking.

The slim budget was evident everywhere. Stallone’s wardrobe was plucked from his own closet. His wife worked as the set photographer. But it was more than that— the movie’s finances also meant that the director had to be choosy about how many shots to film. A crucial scene where Rocky confesses his fears about the fight to Adrian (played by Talia Shire) was almost cut before Stallone begged the producers to give him just one take. The scene became the film’s emotional spine.

When the director proposed shooting a date between Rocky and Adrian at an ice rink, the producers laughed. A rink full of extras, combined with the costs of filming all the takes, seemed risky. But when Stallone convinced them of the scene’s worth, they wrote around it. In the movie, Rocky pays off a manager to let the duo skate in an empty rink. The result was easier to shoot and made for a beautiful metaphor: a clumsy dance between two misfits, each holding the other up.

But improvisation wasn’t always an option. For Rocky’s climactic bout with Creed, Stallone and actor Carl Weathers rehearsed five hours a day for a week. Though both were incredible physical specimens, neither had ever boxed and their earliest attempts were exhausting. (Ironically, only Burt Young, cast as Rocky’s sad-sack pal Paulie, had any actual ring experience: He was 14–0 as a pro.) When the director saw their first sparring efforts, he told Stallone to go home and write out the beats. Stallone returned with 14 pages of lefts, rights, counters, and hooks, all delivered using camera-friendly gloves too small to be legal in a real prizefight. As they practiced, Avildsen circled them with an 8mm camera, recording them to point out their weaknesses. He even zoomed in on Stallone’s waistline to remind him he needed to shape up.

Studying all that footage paid off. The fight was shot in front of 4,000 restless extras, corralled with the promise of a free chicken dinner. In the original ending, Rocky walks off with Adrian backstage. But composer Bill Conti’s score was so soaring that the director decided to reshoot the finale, despite having run out of funds. The producers paid for the overage themselves, allowing for the unforgettable final scene: Rocky in the ring, with Adrian fighting through the crowd to reach him, her hat pulled off by a crew member using fishing wire. The image freezes with Rocky embracing her— stopping at what Stallone later called the pinnacle of Rocky’s life. It was the perfect crescendo to an emotional journey—not only for Rocky, but for his alter ego.

The parallels between the actor’s story and Rocky’s were not lost on United Artists’ marketing strategist, Gabe Sumner. A clever publicist, Sumner knew he had quite the task in front of him: selling an old-fashioned boxing movie starring a nobody. Rocky’s competition at the box office didn’t make it any easier. Late 1976 was filled with blockbusters, and Stallone’s hero had to battle with King Kong, a new Dirty Harry sequel, and Carrie for ticket sales.

To compete, Sumner turned up the volume on Stallone’s shaggy-dog story. He sold the narrative about Stallone, a self-made actor-writer who had scraped and clawed his way to the top, as irresistibly American. And he bent the facts a little, too. In Sumner’s version, studio execs offered Stallone hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the script if they could cast a bankable movie star in the role. The impoverished actor, despite having a pregnant wife and just $106 in the bank, stood his ground. He hitchhiked to auditions. He had to sell his dog. But Stallone wasn’t a sellout, and this was his one chance to break through. The truth, Sumner later admitted, was that the studio had never met Stallone. None of it mattered, though—this was Madison Avenue mythmaking at its best.

The marketing strategy struck a chord. The actor’s tale so perfectly mirrored his onscreen role that the film received significant attention from both the media and audiences. And as word of mouth spread, Rocky became the highest-grossing picture of 1976, earning more than $117 million at the box office (the average ticket price at the time was just over $2). Audiences were equally captivated by the soundtrack. “Gonna Fly Now,” Conti’s trumpet-heavy theme, which accompanied Rocky’s training montage, moved more than 500,000 units.

Though some critics, including The New York Times’ reviewer, panned the flick for its sentimentality, most media embraced it. "Rocky KOs Hollywood," crowed a Newsweek cover. The Academy agreed. At the 1977 Academy Awards, Rocky became the first sports film to win Best Picture, beating out heavy hitters Network, All the President’s Men, and Taxi Driver. Frank Capra and Charlie Chaplin wrote Stallone congratulatory letters. He became a bona fide movie star, anointed by two Hollywood legends who had built their careers making heroes of the common man.

Today, Rocky's boxing trunks hang in the Smithsonian. Wedding ceremonies have been held at his statue near Philadelphia’s Museum of Art. Fans still run up the adjacent steps, mimicking his sprint to glory. As for Stallone, he was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 2011, making him the only actor ever to receive the honor. In his vision of a gentle slugger searching for an opportunity to shine despite the longest odds, Stallone crafted a story that continues to resonate with millions of moviegoers: It’s the American dream played out at 24 frames per second.

When Sumner’s publicity exaggerations were discovered in 2006, few seemed to care. Perhaps that’s because as a character, Rocky did more than go toe-to-toe with Apollo Creed. At a time when Taxi Driver’s sociopathic antihero Travis Bickle preyed on audience fears and Network played to the bleak pessimism of a struggling nation, Rocky reminded the country what it means to hope. As Sylvester Stallone once said, “If I say it, you won’t believe it. But when Rocky said it, it was the truth.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”