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12 Futuristic Facts About Metropolis

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There's no debate: Fritz Lang's Metropolis is the most influential science fiction film ever made. To watch it now is to constantly think, "Oh, so that’s where that came from." The sets, costumes, stories, and themes have inspired filmmakers, music videos, fashion designers, and architects, most of whom only saw a severely truncated version of the film yet were struck by it anyway. As with many sci-fi films, Metropolis' visuals are better than its story, but the story proved to be an archetype of the genre. Let's head deep, deep underground to learn more about one of Germany's most vital contributions to cinema.

1. THE FILM INSPIRED AN ECLECTIC LIST OF POP CULTURE CONTRIBUTIONS.

Here’s a list of just a few of the things that were inspired by Metropolis: The design of C-3PO; The Matrix; the videos for Madonna's "Express Yourself," Whitney Houston's "Queen of the Night," and several Lady Gaga songs; Brazil; the futuristic cities of Blade Runner, Dark City, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Tim Burton's Batman films; and the wild-haired "mad scientists" of countless movies.

2. AT THE TIME, IT WAS THE MOST EXPENSIVE MOVIE EVER MADE.

The budget of 1.5 million Reichsmarks eventually swelled to 5.3 million, which in 1926 was about $1.2 million. The film looks like it cost even more than that, with its huge sets and massive crowds of extras (though see below). But adjusted for inflation, that $1.2 million is only $16 million, or about one-tenth the cost of a large-scale sci-fi epic made today. Movies are a lot more expensive to make now than they were then.

3. PEOPLE HAVE EXAGGERATED JUST HOW HUGE IT WAS.

Articles about Metropolis often mention that Lang used "thousands of extras," with 36,000 being the number officially declared by the studio in publicity materials at the time. But according to Lang, that's nonsense. "There were never thousands of extras,” he said in 1971. “Never ... Two hundred and fifty, 300. It depends how you use a crowd."

4. IT INTRODUCED A TECHNIQUE THAT WAS STILL BEING USED AS RECENTLY AS THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

Lang built some very large sets, but a lot of the visual effects he wanted required something even bigger. For those, his cinematographer and special effects guru, Eugen Schüfftan, adapted an old bit of stage trickery, using mirrors to "project" actors into miniature models or drawings. This came to be known as the Schüfftan Process and was used quite a bit over the next few decades until new technology came along that made it easier to get these effects. Still, it's not unheard of even today: Peter Jackson used the old trick in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

5. THERE IS PROBABLY NO ONE ALIVE WHO HAS SEEN THE WHOLE MOVIE.

Metropolis was 153 minutes long when it premiered in Berlin in January 1927, longer than theater owners liked movies to be. When its box office performance was marginal at best, and with its distributor, Ufa, in financial trouble already, the studio made arrangements to sell the film and chop it up for foreign release.

The butchered, almost incoherent version that played later that year in the UK and the U.S. was about 115 minutes long, followed by a re-release in 1936 that was only 91 minutes. Then, wouldn't you know it, the original version was lost. For 80 years, the only way you could see Metropolis was in one of those shortened forms, with various scenes occasionally rediscovered and re-added.

In 2008, a battered negative of the original cut was found in Buenos Aires. It was painstakingly restored and issued on DVD and Blu-ray two years later, now 148 minutes but still not quite complete, as a few scenes were damaged beyond repair. (The restored version uses intertitles to explain what's in the missing footage.) So the only people who have ever seen the full, original, complete version were the Berliners who caught it in the first few months of 1927, nearly 90 years ago.

6. IT WAS INSPIRED BY THE REAL METROPOLIS.

Lang visited New York City in 1924 and, in his own words, "I looked into the streets—the glaring lights and the tall buildings—and there I conceived Metropolis." Now, that's a bit of an exaggeration. Lang was already working on the Metropolis script with his wife, Thea von Harbou, when he visited the Big Apple, so the city wasn't what gave him the idea in the first place. But New York, and especially the Art Deco architectural style of the time, certainly influenced the visual design of the film.

7. LANG ALMOST GAVE SOME POOR KIDS HYPOTHERMIA.

For the scene where the workers' city is flooded, Lang brought in some 500 children (note that that's more than the 250 to 300 extras he cited earlier) from Berlin's poorer districts and had them stand in a pool of water that was, in the words of one actor, "kept at quite a low temperature, to nip excessive demonstrations of our youthful gaiety in the bud." The sequence took 14 days to shoot. To his credit, Lang made sure the kids were well fed and cared for during those two weeks on the set, and he was no more indifferent toward them when the cameras were rolling than he was toward anyone else.

8. IT TOOK A YEAR TO FILM AND IT'S A WONDER NOBODY DIED.

Lang was a meticulous, exacting filmmaker, often doing multiple takes for even uncomplicated scenes. By the time Lang spent two days getting a shot of Freder collapsing at Maria's feet, the actor playing Freder could barely stand up. In the scene where Maria is burned at the stake, the actress' dress caught fire. In the flooding sequence, he commanded extras to throw themselves at the jets of water, which were coming with fire hose force.

9. THE NOVEL AND THE MOVIE HAD A SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP.

Thea von Harbou wrote the novel of Metropolis in 1925, specifically so her husband could make it into a film. Thanks to shrewd thinking at Ufa, before the novel was published, it was serialized in a magazine, accompanied by photos from the still-in-production movie. The book was released to coincide with the movie's premiere, and also had photos in it—an early example of cross-promotion. (By the way, the novel had supernatural and occult elements that didn't make it to the final cut of the movie.)

10. H.G. WELLS SAID IT WAS THE SILLIEST FILM HE'D EVER SEEN.

The visionary sci-fi author's The Time Machine had inspired Metropolis' division into an upper world and an underworld, so it must have stung a bit when Wells hated the movie. He called it the "silliest film" he'd ever seen, saying it was wrong, "with a sort of malignant stupidity," about the direction society was headed. "Metropolis, in its forms and shapes, is already as a possibility a third of a century out of date," Wells wrote.

11. THE LEADING LADY'S MOM GOT HER THE PART.

Brigitte Helm—born Brigitte Schittenhelm in 1906—acted in school plays but had no professional experience when, in 1924, her mother sent her photo to Fritz Lang, hoping he might cast her in a film. Lang gave young Brigitte a screen test, which she charmingly described in the printed program for Metropolis: "Someone gave me a letter to read, and while doing this, the lights were switched on, and the cameraman turned the handle. The great moment had come. I was being filmed! Then an actor approached me unexpectedly, and in a loud thrilling voice insulted me. Afterwards I heard that this incident was necessary, as Mr. Lang wanted to test my expression." Lang liked what he saw and cast 18-year-old Brigitte as the female lead.

12. IT WAS A FLOP AT THE TIME, AND FOR REASONS THAT WILL SOUND VERY FAMILIAR.

As mentioned above, Ufa pulled out all the stops to hype Metropolis prior to its release, with marketing materials trumpeting how big and lavish the production was, how it was unlike any previous film, and how Lang was a visionary. And then the critical consensus, both at home and abroad, was that the movie was amazing visually but had a weak story—the very same criticism lobbed at countless expensive sci-fi adventures released in the 21st century. "Nothing of the sort has ever been filmed before; the effect is positively overwhelming," said the Variety review. "Too bad that so much really artistic work is wasted on this manufactured story." Or The New York Times: "A technical marvel with feet of clay, a picture as soulless as the manufactured woman of its story." Some things never change ...

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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