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13 Rabid Facts About Cujo

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It may have temporarily given Saint Bernards a bad name, but this 1983 thriller is still fondly remembered by many horror fans for its relentless suspense and impressively trained stunt dogs. Here are 13 facts about Cujo that you can really sink your teeth into.

1. STEPHEN KING CAN BARELY REMEMBER WRITING THE ORIGINAL NOVEL.

The story of Cujo began in the summer of 1977. At the time, King was living in Bridgton, Maine with his wife, Tabitha. When his motorcycle broke down one day, he took it to a backwoods mechanic who owned what King calls “the biggest Saint Bernard I ever saw in my life.” Four years later, the master of horror published Cujo. A grim masterpiece, the book was written during a tumultuous chapter in its author’s life. During the 1980s, King struggled with alcohol and drug addictions—which spiraled out of control until his family staged an intervention.

In the year 2000, he opened up about the ordeal in his now-classic memoir On Writing. Before his loved ones confronted him, King admitted, he was “drinking a case of sixteen-ounce tallboys a night.” That experience robbed the novelist of some memories he’d like to have back. “[There’s] one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all. I don’t say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss,” King revealed. “I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.”

2. DOG TRAINER KARL MILLER BEGGED A PRODUCER TO CHANGE CUJO’S BREED.

“There are no Saint Bernards who are trained,” Miller noted during pre-production. In the DVD documentary Dog Days: The Making of Cujo, producer Daniel H. Blatt reveals that Miller was hesitant about the prospect of working with this difficult breed in the film. In a conversation with Blatt, the animal handler asked “Why don’t you use a different kind of dog? I have lots of Dobermans and things like that that are trained.” Obviously, the producer wasn’t sold.

3. KING LOBBIED TO HAVE LEWIS TEAGUE DIRECT THE MOVIE.

As a horror movie buff, King really appreciated the unique directing style Teague exhibited in the 1980 creature feature Alligator. So when Taft International picked up the film rights to Cujo, he suggested that they hire Teague to take the helm. Instead, the studio chose veteran director Peter Medak. However, a few days after principal photography started, Medak left the project due to creative differences with Blatt. Teague was then brought in as a replacement.  

4. THE TITLE CHARACTER WAS PLAYED BY MULTIPLE CANINES (AND SOME MAN-MADE STUNT DOUBLES).

How many live Saint Bernards were used in the filming of Cujo? “Everybody says a different number,” observes Dee Wallace, who portrayed Donna Trenton. In various interviews, members of the cast and crew have claimed that Cujo relied on the services of anywhere from five to 13 individual dogs that all received specialized training.

“Each dog had a different talent,” Teague said at the 2014 Monster Mania Convention in southern New Jersey. For example, one pooch would bark on command in front of the camera. Another was taught to run along pre-determined routes. There were also certain moments—such as the shot where Cujo rams his head into a car door—that called for a synthetic canine. “We had a man in a dog suit, we had a mechanical dog, and we had as a backup a dog suit we could put on a Labrador retriever, which we never actually used,” Teague says.

5. TEAGUE CHOSE TO OMIT THE BOOK’S SUPERNATURAL UNDERTONES.

The novel implies that Cujo himself might be the reincarnation of a human serial killer. It also hints at the possibility of an otherworldly force lurking in Tad’s closet, which would help explain his recurring nightmares. During the DVD commentary, Teague says that he’d toyed with the latter concept. “We actually experimented with having special effects that showed something did exist… in the closet and Tad wasn’t just imagining things,” reveals the director. Specifically, in this deleted footage, the boy’s toys and coat hangers merge together into a frightening, monster-like shape. “But it didn’t work, on film it was hokey,” Teague claims.

6. CHILLY TEMPERATURES MADE FOR AN UNCOMFORTABLE SHOOT.

Although the story takes place in coastal Maine during an oppressively hot summer, Cujo was shot in northern California over the months of October, November, and December, 1982. Of course, this part of the country isn’t noted for its balmy winters. Wallace says that in many scenes, she and Danny Pintauro (Tad Trenton) “were freezing to death… They had to put a heater in the car for us during the production because we were freezing.”

This discomfort was exacerbated by the fact that the script called for both actors to wear very little clothing in all of the Pinto sequences. Low temperatures even marred some of the indoor scenes. Case in point: During the climax, Donna douses Tad with what appears to be cold tap water. But actually, Wallace used warm water to keep her young co-star from getting too chilly. 

7. ONE DOG HOSPITALIZED WALLACE’S STUNTWOMAN.  

In a discussion panel at the Monster Mania con, Teague and Wallace discussed a gruesome on-set injury. The incident occurred during the big attack scene that sees Cujo tackling Donna. When certain shots were deemed too dangerous for Wallace, the decision was made to intercut footage of her stuntwoman, Jean Coulter. Acting alongside the double was a trained dog named Cubby, who’d been taught to lurch forward whenever Coulter lunged towards him. Together, the two nailed an important shot on the very first take. Unfortunately, though, the situation was about to go downhill in a hurry.

“We [heard] ‘Cut! We got it!’” Wallace remembered. At that point, Coulter shouted “Yeah!” In her excitement, she suddenly jerked forward. Big mistake. “The dog lunged… and bit off the end of her nose,” Wallace said. Coulter was rushed to a hospital, where doctors reattached the lobbed-off nasal flesh. By the way, this wasn’t the first time she’d been injured or otherwise harmed during a shoot: On the set of Jaws 2 (1978), Coulter lost her eyelashes and brows when a flare gun mishap set her wig ablaze.  

8. THE SAINT BERNARDS WERE CONSTANTLY WAGGING THEIR TAILS.

Don’t let their big proportions scare you: In real life, Saint Bernards are famously friendly dogs—and the ones that appeared in Cujo were no different. “We had to literally tie their tails down [with fishing wire] because they would wag them,” Wallace remembers. “It was a big game for them!”

9. WALLACE FOUGHT TO KEEP A POWERFUL LINE OF DIALOGUE.  

Late in the film, an inconsolable Tad starts hollering for his father until Donna finally snaps and screams “Alright, I’ll get your daddy!” at the top of her lungs. The take that we see in the movie almost ended up on the cutting room floor. When Dan Blatt saw this footage, he approached Wallace and wondered aloud if the actress’ tone might cause the audience to turn against her character. “Every parent everywhere in the world will identify with that reaction,” Wallace countered. “Let’s have the balls to go with it.” Hearing this, Blatt relented and the take was incorporated into the final version of the film.  

10. KING APPROVED OF THE MOVIE’S HAPPY ENDING.

SPOILER ALERT: The Cujo novel ends with a devastating twist. In the book, an anguished Donna kills her canine oppressor moments before she’s rescued by her husband, Vic. Only then does she learn that little Tad—having succumbed to prolonged trauma and dehydration—has perished in the back seat of their Pinto. But in the movie version, Tad lives. It was a change that Taft International insisted upon, and King completely understood the studio’s rationale. As the novelist told Cinefantastique magazine, “Films exist on a much more emotional level. It’s all happening right in front of you.” Negative reactions to the final pages of his novel might also help explain why he was so willing to let the filmmakers cook up a happier ending. When the Cujo novel was released, King informed the cast and crew that he’d “never gotten more hate mail” than he did after killing off Tad Trenton.

11. AFTER PRODUCTION ENDED, WALLACE WAS TREATED FOR EXHAUSTION.

It’s no secret that King was greatly disappointed by Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic take on his classic novel, The Shining. On the other hand, he very much enjoyed what Teague and company did with Cujo. The author’s even written that Dee Wallace deserved an Oscar nomination for her “absolutely terrific” performance as Donna. For the record, Wallace cites Cujo as her favorite of all the movies she’s worked on. Yet, the lead role took a massive toll on her health.

“I don’t think I’ve ever done anything as emotionally and physically taxing as that film,” she says. “On the set… they picked me up at 5 AM every morning and I was lucky to get home by 8 PM,” Wallace explains. And as if this wasn’t fatiguing enough, the intense nature of her scenes sent a near-constant supply of adrenaline coursing through the actress’s body. Consequently, Wallace spent three weeks being treated for exhaustion after Cujo wrapped.

12. CUJO AND BEETHOVEN (1992) EMPLOYED THE SAME DOG TRAINER.  

“When Cujo came out, I wasn’t exactly the most popular dog trainer in the world among Saint Bernard owners,” Miller told the Los Angeles Times. In 1992 however, he redeemed himself in their eyes by lending his talents to a more upbeat Saint Bernard flick called Beethoven. To find the perfect dog for that anarchic family comedy, Lewis auditioned roughly two dozen different specimens before selecting a big male named Kris, who ended up starring in both Beethoven and its 1993 sequel, Beethoven’s 2nd.

13. CUJO’S DIRECTOR DIDN’T GRADUATE FROM FILM SCHOOL UNTIL 2016.

Teague had dropped out of New York University in 1963. “At the end of my second year at NYU… I accidentally took a film production class, loved it, got hit by a bolt of lightning,” he explains in the above clip. “I knew [that was] what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” Eager to pursue his newfound passion, Teague put together a short film titled It’s About This Carpenter. In turn, that little picture earned him a scholarship at Universal Studios, along with a director’s contract.

Upon arriving at their Los Angeles facility, he dropped out of NYU altogether and started executing various jobs in the film industry. By the early 2000s, Teague had directed several films, including The Jewel of the Nile, Cat’s Eye, and—of course—Cujo. The filmmaker recently went back to NYU, where he finally earned his bachelor’s degree in 2016 at the age of 78.

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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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