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8 Great Moments in the History of Editing

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by David Wanczyk

Novels, movies, cartoons, tattoos ... everything is better on the second draft.

1. The Catch in Catch-22: The Edit That Became an Idiom

In 1961, author Joseph Heller finally submitted his manuscript for Catch-18 to his editor, Robert Gottlieb. Although Heller had spent seven years perfecting the story, Gottlieb saw room for improvement. The editor taped the pages to his office wall and restructured the novel, giving more emphasis to the now famous Major Major character and instructing Heller to delete entire 60-page sections. But most importantly, Gottlieb wanted to change the title.

Earlier that year, writer Leon Uris had released a war novel called Mila 18, and Gottlieb didn’t want any confusion between the two books. What followed was an exchange of frantic letters in which Heller and Gottlieb considered and rejected various numbers for the title. They decided 11 didn’t work because of Ocean’s 11; 14 was “an unfunny number;” and 26 just didn’t feel right. “I’ve got it!” Gottlieb blurted out one night in a eureka moment. “It’s Catch-22! It’s funnier than 18.” The edit stuck, and a major, major idiom was born.

2. Hall Marks: The Edit That Resulted in Two Masterpieces

Today, Woody Allen’s 1977 masterpiece Annie Hall is considered the quintessential romantic comedy. Clocking in at just 93 minutes, it’s also one of the shortest movies to ever win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. But the film wasn’t always so romantic ... or so short. Annie Hall was initially shot as a murder mystery that ran two and a half hours long. Then the movie’s producers decided they wanted to go in a different direction. In addition to slicing out all of the crime scenes, they requested a title change. It’s a good thing, too. Originally, the picture was called Anhedonia, a psychological term that refers to the inability to gain pleasure from normally pleasing experiences. But when Anhedonia tested horribly with focus groups, the team tried out other titles—including Me and My Goy and It Had to Be Jew—before landing on the classic Annie Hall.


Were the producers right to worry about Anhedonia’s crime-comedy plot? Perhaps not. Sixteen years later, Allen recycled the story (and even rehired many of the same actors, including Diane Keaton) for his well-received 1993 film Manhattan Murder Mystery. Without the producers’ extreme edits to Annie Hall, it’s likely that only one of those classics would have been made.

3. Guess Who's Going Off Script? The Greatest Ad-Lib Edit on Film

At the end of his legendary acting career, Spencer Tracy decided it was time to start writing his own lines. In 1967, the ailing, 67-year-old Tracy was filming Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in which an older white couple (played by Tracy and his longtime off-screen lover, Katharine Hepburn) meets their daughter’s black fiancé. During the final scene, Tracy argues on behalf of the couple’s taboo relationship and then ad-libs a goodbye to Hepburn. Originally, the script read, “The only thing that matters is what they feel, and how much they feel for each other,” to which Tracy added, “If it’s half of what we felt, that’s everything.” With his heartfelt edit, Tracy allowed his true emotions to pour out, and Hepburn teared up. After the scene was shot, the crew gave Tracy a standing ovation. The scene ended up being Tracy’s last great performance; just weeks later, the actor died of a heart attack.

4. Virgil's Last Wish: The No-Edit Edit

Since the earliest days of literature, writers have been dissatisfied with their work, and the Roman poet Virgil was no exception. Virgil believed his epic poem, The Aeneid, was so flawed that he wanted it to suffer the ultimate edit: He asked that it be burned upon his death. (In particular, he hated the love scene between Venus and Vulcan, because he thought it was too racy.) However, several of Virgil’s friends, with support from Emperor Augustus, convinced the poet to alter his will and spare the work. But legend has it that before Vigil died in 19 BCE, he changed his will again, this time forbidding anyone from ever revising the poem. If he couldn’t perfect The Aeneid, he didn’t want anyone else to do it, either.

5. Coke Zero-ed: The Product Placement Edit

It’s not unusual for songs to be edited for radio play. For example, the Black-Eyed Peas’ song “Let’s Get Retarded” was changed to “Let’s Get It Started” to avoid offending the mentally challenged. But when the British Broadcasting Company refused to play The Kinks’ 1970 anthem “Lola,” it was for a much stranger reason. While the BBC had no problem with the song’s lyrics, which included lines about sex and drag queens, it did balk at the song’s mention of “Coca-Cola.” Apparently, the government-subsidized network had a strict policy about in-song advertisements, and it considered the reference to be product placement. (Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” was held up in 1973 for similar reasons.)

Ray Davies, lead singer of The Kinks, learned of the problem while he was on tour with the band in America. To get the song on the air, Davies rushed back to London and re-recorded the line, changing the lyric to the now famous, “you drink Champagne, and it tastes just like cherry cola.” Minor? Perhaps. But the quick fix allowed the song to be played on British radio, where it climbed to No. 2 on the U.K. charts.

6. Winona Forever: The Painful Breakup Edit

In 1989, Hollywood heartthrob Johnny Depp spotted fellow Hollywood heartthrob Winona Ryder at a movie premiere in New York, and an angsty romance sparked. Their whirlwind love story continued through the filming of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands the following year, and Depp and Ryder were soon engaged. Hoping for something more permanent than a ring, Depp had “Winona Forever” tattooed on his right bicep. But three years later, their love had faded. The tattoo had not. In the most physically painful edit on this list, Depp had the ink on his bicep amended to “Wino Forever,” reflecting another of his passions.

7. Poisoning the Welles: The Edit That Ruined a Career

Following the critical success of Orson Welles’ 1941 film, Citizen Kane, RKO Pictures agreed to produce the director’s next project, The Magnificent Ambersons. But when Welles’ gloomy picture tested poorly with audiences, RKO president George Schaefer asked Welles to re-cut the entire film.

Welles happened to be in Rio de Janeiro at the time working on another project, so editor Robert Wise was handed the assignment. At the studio’s insistence, Wise chopped 50 minutes from the mournful tale. When Welles heard about this, he was horrified. He sent Wise urgent directorial notes, followed by a telegram that read, “REALLY DESPERATE.” The studio ignored his suggestions.

The film was released in 1942, and it was a box-office flop. Schaefer was fired, and Welles lost his contract with RKO. “They destroyed Ambersons, and it destroyed me,” Welles said of the hasty edits. Yet, this sorrowful tale about a sorrowful tale has a surprisingly happy ending. Even in its badly truncated form, The Magnificent Ambersons is now considered a classic.

8. Splitting Hares: The Edit That Created a Screen Legend

In 1938, Warner Brothers writer Ben Hardaway directed a short film featuring a very sneaky rabbit. The cartoon was called Porky’s Hare Hunt, but the bunny that starred in it didn’t have a name. So, the best creative minds in the business got together and dubbed the up-and-coming star “Happy Rabbit.”


Ben Hardaway, whose nickname was Bugs, also directed the next short starring Happy Rabbit. As the animators drew up early images for the film, one of them labeled a sketch of the rabbit “Bugs’ Bunny,” to make it clear that the drawing was part of Hardaway’s project. The label was mistaken for the name of the character, and soon enough, all of the animators were calling Happy Rabbit “Bugs Bunny.” The tiny error created an icon, and, as they say at Warner Bros., that’s all folks.

This article originally appeared in a 2011 issue of mental_floss magazine, which is available wherever brilliant/lots of magazines are sold. Get a free issue here!

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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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