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12 Futuristic Facts About Escape From New York

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These days, the world of dystopian cinema has been taken over by the big-budget worlds of The Hunger Games and Divergent. But 35 years ago today, director John Carpenter and a budding movie star named Kurt Russell set the standard for such films with a low-budget cult classic called Escape From New York. It’s not a film that’s big on heroics, or kindness, or even hope. It’s grim and violent and scrappy and, ultimately, one of the most iconic science fiction films ever made. In honor of its 35th anniversary, here are a dozen facts about Snake Plissken and his mission into the world’s largest prison: New York City.

1. IT WAS FILMED IN ST. LOUIS BECAUSE OF A DISASTER.

Though the film takes place in New York City, director John Carpenter and his crew couldn’t film some of the more ambitious sequences there because it would have “tied up the whole city too much,” so they went looking for an alternate location, and found one in St. Louis, Missouri. Why St. Louis? Well, a few years prior to filming, a fire destroyed parts of that city’s waterfront, leaving large areas of ruined buildings and empty streets that provided the perfect post-apocalyptic look.

“You would have these huge blocks of burned out buildings that just went on forever and ever and ever, as far as you could see,” producer Debra Hill said.

Carpenter was essentially given free rein to shoot in the city at night and cover the streets with debris to craft the perfect look for Snake Plissken’s journey.

2. IT ORIGINALLY STARTED WITH A BANK ROBBERY.

When we first meet Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), he’s already a notorious prisoner and former war hero being given a shot at freedom. But Carpenter’s original plan was to show the audience how he got to prison in the first place. Carpenter initially shot an elaborate opening sequence featuring Snake and an accomplice pulling a bank robbery, then fleeing on a hot-wired train before being captured. Audiences ultimately found it confusing, so it was cut.

3. THE NAME “SNAKE PLISSKEN” CAME FROM A REAL PERSON.

When writing the original script for the film, Carpenter was in search of a name for his main character, and it just so happened that a friend of a friend actually knew a person named “Snake Plissken,” who Carpenter described as “a kinda high school tough guy,” complete with a snake tattoo. It was too perfect to pass up.

“Anybody with a snake tattooed on them some place … that’s my kinda hero,” Carpenter said.

4. CARPENTER HAD TO FIGHT FOR KURT RUSSELL AS SNAKE.

At the time of the film’s production, Kurt Russell was an actor best known for his work in Disney projects like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. He wasn’t an action star, but Carpenter thought he was the right choice to play Snake. The studio, on the other hand, wanted a star like Tommy Lee Jones or Chuck Norris for the part. Carpenter dismissed Norris as too old, and preferred Russell over Jones, so he fought for his young star, and eventually won.

5. THE FILM’S CREW INCLUDED A YOUNG JAMES CAMERON.

To pull off some of the film’s special effects, Carpenter turned to Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. For one particular sequence, in which security forces drop food for the prisoners via helicopter, Carpenter needed matte paintings to simulate a New York skyline, since they weren’t actually shooting in New York. One of the artists that produced those paintings was James Cameron, who worked for New World at the time and would later go on to direct Titanic and Avatar.

6. SNAKE’S EYEPATCH WAS KURT RUSSELL’S IDEA.

One of the most iconic things about the film is Snake Plissken’s eyepatch, and apparently that wasn’t in the script. According to Russell, he suggested it to Carpenter, who immediately likened the idea to a favorite Western hero.

“I said to John, ‘I think it’d be cool to wear an eyepatch.’ I think a lot of guys would have gone, ‘Well, I don’t know …’ but John immediately went, ‘That’s great! I don’t think anybody’s worn an eyepatch since John Wayne in True Grit!’”

7. IT GOT UNPRECEDENTED ACCESS TO LIBERTY ISLAND.

Though much of the film was shot elsewhere, Carpenter did secure one key piece of New York City iconography for on-location shooting: Liberty Island, for the sequence in which a helicopter flies by the Statue of Liberty and the film establishes that it’s now a headquarters for security forces. According to Carpenter, the City of New York granted his crew unprecedented access.

“We were the first film company in history allowed to shoot on Liberty Island, at the Statue of Liberty, at night. They let us have the whole island to ourselves. We were lucky. It wasn't easy to get that initial permission. They'd had a bombing three months earlier, and were worried about trouble. But we were good tenants. We were extremely careful, and cleaned up our messes afterward."

8. OX BAKER PULLED NO PUNCHES.

For the sequence in which Snake has to fight a fellow prisoner, gladiator-style, Carpenter hired actual pro wrestler Ox Baker, who was so rough and real when rehearsing the fight scenes that Russell’s stunt man only gave him one piece of advice: “Good luck.” Russell had the last laugh, though, because he had to hit Baker in the back of the neck with an actual baseball bat studded with nails. A piece of padding was attached to Baker’s neck to absorb the blow, but both Carpenter and Russell recalled the wrestler was a little on edge before the stunt took place.

9. JAMIE LEE CURTIS HAS A CAMEO.

Three years prior to Escape From New York, Carpenter directed his breakout hit: the slasher film Halloween, which also proved to be the breakout film for star Jamie Lee Curtis. If Halloween hadn’t worked out, it’s doubtful Carpenter ever would have made Escape From New York, so he called upon his Halloween star to participate when it finally happened. You won’t see Curtis in the film, but you will hear her: She voices both the narrator and the computer.

10. DONALD PLEASENCE WROTE HIS OWN BACKSTORY.

Jamie Lee Curtis wasn’t the only Halloween star to appear in the film. Carpenter also called upon Donald Pleasence—who leant some star credibility to Halloween as Dr. Loomis—to play the President of the United States. So why does an American president have Pleasence’s British accent? The film never explains it, but Pleasence himself apparently did. According to Carpenter, the actor wrote a backstory for his character involving Margaret Thatcher and the U.S. apparently reverting back to being a British colony. Carpenter opted not to use it.

11. ONE SHOT WAS FILMED IN CARPENTER’S GARAGE.

According to Russell, there’s only one character in the film, other than himself, that Snake Plissken cares about: Maggie, the tough woman played by Carpenter’s then-wife, Adrienne Barbeau. So for one of the only real moments of emotion in the film, her death, Carpenter wanted to make it clear that Maggie really was gone. The problem with that was that he never shot footage of Maggie’s body, only of her being hit by the Duke’s car. So, to fix that, Carpenter later added a shot of her body that he and Barbeau filmed in their own garage.

12. CARPENTER AND RUSSELL HAD AN IDEA FOR A THIRD FILM.

It took 15 years, but Carpenter and Russell eventually returned to the world of Snake Plissken with 1996’s Escape From L.A. Since then, talks of rebooting the franchise have stopped and started several times, but Carpenter and Russell apparently had an idea for a third film in their own series that would’ve seen Snake escaping the bonds of Earth.

“The only other one we wanted to do, both John and I thought Escape From Earth for Snake.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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