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10 Mind-Blowing Facts About Scanners

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It’s been 35 years since David Cronenberg’s Scanners (literally) blew your brains for the first time. Since then, the Michael Ironside/Stephen Lack-starrer has developed into an undeniable cult hit that’s become a midnight movie staple at independent theaters everywhere. A sci-fi action flick known for its groundbreaking special effects, Scanners tells the story of a group of renegade scanners, a.k.a. humans with extraordinary psychic powers, on a mission to band together to rule the world—but not if one special uncorrupted scanner can help it. If it sounds bizarre, that's because everything about it is; it wouldn’t be a signature Cronenberg film if it wasn’t strange. Learn more about this 1981 gem with these 10 mind-blowing facts.

1. THE FAMOUS HEAD EXPLODING SCENE WAS ACCOMPLISHED WITH PET FOOD AND A SHOTGUN.

In the Criterion Collection edition of the film, the special effects team revealed how they pulled off the memorable scene. “Latex scraps, some wax, and just bits and bobs and a lot of stringy stuff that we figured would fly through the air a little bit better,” they noted. According to makeup artist Stephan Dupuis, they even used “leftover burgers.”

2. DAVID CRONENBERG MOVED THE HEAD EXPLOSION SCENE FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE FILM FOR LATE MOVIEGOERS.

Cronenberg cares about his audience, which is why he decided to move the head explosion scene from the beginning of the film—albeit reluctantly at first. “People tend to come late at films, they walk in after the first three minutes,” Cronenberg told Starburst. “For me, films are really made for an audience, like the way poets read their poetry for reactions and make changes based on that. I used to sneer at test previews but now I realize that it makes perfect sense. You get so close to something that you can’t objectively gauge on how an audience is going to react to something and you need that kind of resonance. I really agonized over that change for quite some time. It was suggested by somebody else, though I wasn’t forced into it at all.”

3. STEPHEN LACK STILL HAS HIS FAKE HEAD THAT EXPLODED.

Apparently, it’s a hit with fanboys. Stephen Lack, who starred as Cameron Vale, told Film Comment, “I went to a horror convention with my head, twice. The entire convention space was filled with booths of people that had expanded on Dick Smith’s original discoveries. It was fantastic! People like to pose with [the head]. If it were the seventies, people would be exposing their genitals to it. But those days are long gone—people don’t think that way anymore.”

4. CRONENBERG SHOT TWO ENDINGS TO SCANNERS.

According to Michael Ironside, who played Darryl Revok, he and Stephen Lack filmed a less exciting version of the ending. “With one ending, we had this psycho-battle between my brother and I and it didn’t work, we shot it right up until Christmas and sent the script to [special effects wizard] Dick Smith in New York and asked him what he could come up with in terms of cutting edge makeup,” Ironside explained. “You know, something that would give us a more memorable battle and a different ending. Dick then came up with the idea of the exploding heads and that was a very collaborative thing.”

5. ACCORDING TO LACK, THE SCANNERS SCRIPT WASN’T EVEN WRITTEN WHILE FILMING.

It’s no surprise that Cronenberg allegedly called Scanners his most frustrating film to make. In addition to delays in filming, the script wasn’t even completed when production commenced. “Not only was Scanners not rehearsed, but it wasn’t written,” Lack told Film Comment. “David was coming in with pink, blue, and yellow pages for the day for the version of the script that we were doing, and he was working on it right there. As a result I had to deal with the dialogue in such a way that I was not reacting to things, because the information hadn’t been given to my character in the linear progression of the story. If you chop it up and look at it, 50 percent of my dialogue is not an assertion of anything but rather a question: ‘You called me a Scanner, what does that mean?’ ‘You’re part of an organization, who are you?’ Everything is a freaking question!”

6. MICHAEL IRONSIDE WORE DUSTIN HOFFMAN’S EYES FROM LITTLE BIG MAN IN A CRUCIAL SCENE.

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Scanners was all about making its special effects work at all costs, which is why Ironside’s story about his peculiar eyes at the end of the film fits in perfectly. “There’s a scene … where I’m set on fire and my head comes up and those scleras they put on your eyes, they had scratched all my corneas,” Ironside recalled. “So the contact lenses they had made for me to change my eye color didn't fit properly because my eyes had been scratched. Dick Smith happened to have with him Dustin Hoffman’s eyes from Little Big Man and they were actually oversized, and you wouldn't normally do this because they have to be fitted, but when you see me come out from under that coat at the end of Scanners, those blue eyes of mine are Dustin Hoffman’s from Little Big Man.”

7. STEPHEN LACK FEARED FOR HIS LIFE DURING THE FIRST DAY OF FILMING THE MOVIE.

In an interview with Film Comment, Lack recalled feeling under-the-gun during one of his first scenes on set. “There we were, the first day of Scanners and they had me get into this 18-wheel truck with four gearshift levers and have me drive into the shot. It was horrifying. I never drove such a thing and I was pretty disoriented,” he explained. “We were set up on a feeder road to the highway, and all the camera crew and staff were there, and some car on the highway slowed down to gawk—and a truck on the highway rammed them from behind. There was a death and sirens, and the whole crew jumped over the storm fence to help out. I was given a slight reprieve of an hour to figure out the gears.”

8. JENNIFER O’NEILL’S CHARACTER KIM OBRIST WAS NAMED AFTER A REAL PERSON.

It turns out the badass lead female/kickass scanner in the film actually took her name from a real-life badass female, Scanners producer Claude Héroux’s assistant, Kim Obrist. Her only other credit is Alvin Rakoff’s Dirty Tricks, which was released the same year as Scanners.

9. ROBERT A. SILVERMAN, A.K.A. SCANNER BENJAMIN PIERCE, IS A REGULAR CRONENBERG COLLABORATOR.

A testament to his friendship with Cronenberg, not only did Robert Silverman appear in the director’s films Rabid, The Brood, Naked Lunch, and eXistenZ, but Cronenberg also made a cameo in another film Silverman starred in, Jason X.

10. A 2008 REMAKE ESSENTIALLY DISAPPEARED FROM THOUGHT.

In 2007, the trades—including Variety—began reporting on a Scanners remake that was to be directed by Saw II director Darren Lynn Bousman under Dimension Films and The Weinstein Company. To this day, it still hasn’t been put into production. However, two years ago, news of a TV version of the cult hit began circulating.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Weird
Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]

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