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How Charlie Chaplin Influenced the Most Disturbing Episode of The X-Files

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FOX/Liaison

In 1996, The X-Files released what would become one of its most notorious episodes. Inconspicuously titled “Home,” the episode follows paranormal detectives Dana Scully and Fox Mulder as they investigate the murder of an unidentified baby on the outskirts of a small Pennsylvania town. Their search quickly leads them to the Peacocks, a family of three deformed brothers, who appear to live alone on a farm, cut off from the rest of the world. Eventually, Mulder and Scully discover the brothers’ horrifying secret: their quadruple amputee mother, previously presumed dead, and responsible for giving birth to the murdered child.

Today, the episode is remembered as one of the most disturbing X-Files episodes of all time (Fox promised to never air it again after complaints of it being "tasteless")—though it's also a fan favorite. But what many viewers on either side of the argument might not know is that it was partially inspired by a truly surprising source: Charlie Chaplin's autobiography. 

Chaplin, who grew up poor in London, got his first big break playing a small part in a British theatrical production of Sherlock Holmes. The teenaged Chaplin toured the countryside with the theater troupe, and would seek out the cheapest lodging during his stay in each town. In My Autobiography, Chaplin describes a particularly strange stay at a miner’s house in a “dank, ugly” town called Ebbw Vale.

One night, after dinner, Chaplin’s host led him into the kitchen, announcing he had something to show the young actor. From a kitchen cupboard—where he was evidently sleeping—out crawled a man with no legs who, at the miner’s goading, began performing a series of strange tricks and dances. In the book, Chaplin recalls:

A half man with no legs, an oversized, blond, flat-shaped head, a sickening white face, a sunken nose, a large mouth and powerful muscular shoulders and arms, crawled from underneath the dresser … "Hey, Gilbert, jump!" said the father and the wretched man lowered himself slowly, then shot up by his arms almost to the height of my head. 

"How do you think he’d fit in with a circus? The human frog!"

I was so horrified I could hardly answer. However, I suggested the names of several circuses that he might write to.

The incident shocked Chaplin—and its retelling apparently had a strong impact on The X-Files writer Glen Morgan as well. According to Morgan, who co-wrote the episode with James Wong, Chaplin's story came back to him while he was writing "Home." Though Morgan mis-remembered the anecdote slightly—he recalled the man being totally limbless, and that the family members "[stood] him up and start[ed] singing and dancing, and the kid kind of flop[ped] around"—the general image stuck with him for a long time. “I think I read that like 13 years ago, and ever since then I thought, 'God, I gotta do something like that!,’” Morgan later explained [PDF]. So he modeled the mother of the Peacock brothers on the legless man under the dresser. Hidden under a bed for most of the episode, Mama Peacock served as the final twist in one of The X-Files' most controversial episodes.

You can see co-writer Wong discussing the episode—and Chaplin's influence on it—in the video below.

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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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