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Why the Boombox Scene in Say Anything Almost Didn't Happen

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Movieclips via YouTube

Cameron Crowe was puzzled. The writer and first-time director had submitted a cut of his new film, Say Anything..., to musician Peter Gabriel in the hopes that Gabriel would be willing to license his song for the now-classic scene where Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) holds a boombox over his head to signal to love interest Diane Court (Ione Skye) that he wasn’t giving up on their relationship.

Crowe knew Gabriel was a hard sell when it came to allowing use of his music, but his reason for not wanting to allow it in the case of Say Anything... was odd. Gabriel called Crowe to tell him he didn’t feel the song was a fit because of “the overdose” in the movie.

Say Anything... had no overdose scene.

It turns out that Gabriel had called Crowe believing he had something to do with Wired, the biopic about late comedian John Belushi that had also been requesting to use “In Your Eyes.” After Crowe corrected him, Gabriel watched the correct tape and gave the director permission to use the song. It would be one of many obstacles in committing a seemingly simple scene to movie history.

Released in 1989, Say Anything... was Crowe’s irreverent take on the teenage romance genre, a format that had been claimed by John Hughes for much of the 1980s. Instead of an idealized male lead, Crowe was more interested in aspiring kickboxer Dobler acknowledging he was a poor social and class fit for Court, who seemed to have a secure future as an intellectual. Instead of a woman looking up at her crush, it was Dobler who was presenting himself as full of doubt that he was good enough.

That characterization worked for the film right up until it was time to shoot the boombox scene, which follows Court breaking up with Dobler and giving him a pen. (“I gave her my heart and she gave me a pen,” Dobler sighs.) Crowe thought Dobler would want a signal flare of sorts to let Court know he wasn’t giving up hope. For the director, who started writing profiles for Rolling Stone at age 15, music seemed like the way to go.

But Dobler’s seeming subservience made Cusack reluctant. He felt holding the boombox over his head outside Court’s house was too much groveling—and Dobler, despite his self-awareness, was more of a dogged pursuer than a pathetic one.

To placate Cusack, Crowe tried shooting the scene with Dobler idling in the car while the boombox sat on the roof. It didn’t work: Dobler was now too passive, too disinterested. The scene, which Crowe and producer James L. Brooks believed could become a hallmark of the movie, was going to have to be abandoned.

On the last day of shooting in Los Angeles, Crowe and his crew spotted an empty park. Daylight was running out and there wasn’t much time left. Crowe convinced Cusack to try the scene the way he had originally envisioned it, with Dobler holding the boombox over his head. This time, Cusack knew how to play it.

With Fishbone's "Turn the Other Way" blaring from the speakers on set, Cusack and Crowe made the shot work for them by agreeing to show a look of defiance, not defeat, on his face. Cusack would later recall that it was really Dobler’s “final stand” as Court’s romantic interest. That perspective allowed him to give Dobler his moment without betraying the character.

During editing, Crowe decided Fishbone wasn’t working for the moment. “In Your Eyes” played during Crowe’s wedding, and while listening to a tape of music from the reception, he realized it was perfect for the scene. After clearing up the confusion with Gabriel, he convinced 20th Century Fox to pony up between $200,000 and $300,000 for the rights to the song.

Say Anything was released on April 14, 1989; a quiet and introspective movie, just before the assault of big summer releases like Batman and Lethal Weapon 2. While it was a modest success during its initial run, it has since become a cult classic, with the boombox scene being one of the most iconic courting scenes in the history of filmed romance.

Although Cusack played the scene the way he wanted, it doesn’t appear as if he has ever been entirely comfortable with any attempts to pay homage to it. Stepping on stage for a Gabriel concert in 2012, he handed a boombox to Gabriel, who held it up himself rather than have Cusack do it. And in a 2009 MTV interview, Cusack appeared to recoil at the sight of a cardboard boombox brought along by an interviewer. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” he said. “I don’t have to do anything with this, right?”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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