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5 Things You Didn't Know About Billy Wilder

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When talking about director and screenwriter Billy Wilder, one really only needs to list the titles of his many triumphs in genres as disparate as light comedy and film noir. The Apartment. Double Indemnity. Sunset Boulevard. Some Like It Hot. The Lot Weekend. Sabrina. Stalag 17. The Austrian-American filmmaker was so prolific and so brilliant that even his minor works like Ace in the Hole, a scathing indictment of journalism, are unforgettable. I really can't articulate just how wonderful Wilder's films are, but I can share a few things you might not have known about him:

1. Before He Was a Director, He Was a Gigolo

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Wilder was born in Sucha Beskidzka in what is now Poland in 1906, and attended what he later called "the worst high school in Vienna." He eventually ended up at the University of Vienna to fulfill his parents' dreams of becoming a lawyer. Fortunately for the future of film, Wilder didn't love the ivory tower and quickly dropped out of college to become a journalist in Berlin.

It was tough to make ends meet as a writer, though, so Wilder supplemented his income by working as a gigolo. According to the director this was no Midnight Cowboy stuff, though, and Wilder went into the line of work mostly hoping it would make good research for a series of articles. His job mostly consisted of dining, dancing, and chatting with lonely old ladies. In the excellent book-length interview Conversations With Wilder by director Cameron Crowe, Wilder claims that he never got frisky with any clients "because they would come with their husbands"¦and the ladies were corpulent ladies, elderly ladies."

2. He Paid Attention to His Extras

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One of the most memorable scenes in The Lost Weekend also ended up being one of the most important scenes in Wilder's life. Ray Milland's alcoholic writer character heads to a fancy nightclub for drinks, only to realize he doesn't have enough cash to cover his tab. To drum up the money, he filches a fellow patron's purse, but he gets caught and is given the heave-ho from the bar. It's perhaps the most embarrassing and crucial scene in the movie.

As Milland is being led from the bar, the arm of a hatcheck girl enters the frame to hand him his hat. As Wilder later told Cameron Crowe, "I only saw the arm, and I fell in love with the arm." Audrey Young, the Paramount extra on the other end of the arm and a singer in Tommy Dorsey's band, became Mrs. Billy Wilder in 1949, and the two stayed together until the director's death in 2002.

(Another interesting note about The Lost Weekend: Since it was the first sweeping portrayal of alcoholism on film, the country's booze peddlers were none too eager to have it hit the screen. The liquor industry banded together and offered Paramount $5 million to suppress the film, but the studio refused. Wilder later joked to Crowe, "If they'd offered me the five million, I would have.")

3. He Was No Raymond Chandler Fan

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If Wilder liked a collaborator, they worked together over and over again. Wilder and longtime writing partner I.A.L. Diamond collaborated on eight scripts, including the screenplays for Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, and actors like Jack Lemmon, William Holden, and Fred MacMurray pop up in multiple Wilder films.

This happy arrangement never came together with mystery icon Raymond Chandler. Paramount hired Chandler to work with Wilder on adapting James M. Cain's novel Double Indemnity into a screenplay, and the two apparently spent much of the time at each other's throats. Wilder admittedly valued Chandler's ear for dialogue, but the aging writer apparently had no interest in working within the structure of a screenplay. As Wilder told Crowe, "[T]here was a lot of Hitler in Chandler," and the two fought over everything from whether or not Wilder could have a martini at lunch— Chandler was a recovering alcoholic—to the rules of etiquette—Chandler once quit in a huff when Wilder asked him to close the blinds without saying "please."

For his part, the notoriously cantankerous Chandler didn't seem to enjoy the process any more than Wilder did. He wrote in his letters, "I went to Hollywood in 1943 to work with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity. This was an agonizing experience and probably shortened my life, but I learned from it as much about screen writing as I am capable of learning, which is not very much." From hearing these stories, you wouldn't think that the teaming would have resulted in arguably film noir's greatest masterpiece, would you? It's amazing what Barbara Stanwyck in an anklet can do.

4. He Brought Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau Together

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Although the long, frequently hilarious collaboration between Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau is most notable for their work in The Odd Couple, it was actually Wilder who brought the two together for the first time in 1966's The Fortune Cookie.

The film tells the story of a CBS sports cameraman (Lemmon) who gets mildly injured while covering a football game, only to have his sleazy personal-injury lawyer brother-in-law (Matthau) railroad him into faking paralysis for a big cash settlement. If you haven't seen it, it's an extremely funny movie, particularly Matthau's performance as "Whiplash Willie" Gingrich, which won him an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. As Wilder later said, "You just know with those two, they would be funny together. They're comedians."

As long as we're giving Wilder credit for changing peoples' careers, it's worth recounting the story of a waiter who asked an elderly Wilder for advice on acting. Wilder told the young man he was too ugly to be an actor, so if he wanted to break into the business he'd have to write a part for himself. The waiter took the advice to heart, and that's how Billy Bob Thornton penned himself a starring role in Sling Blade.

5. He Tried to Make Schindler's List

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When Thomas Keneally published Schindler's Ark in 1983, Wilder tried to get the film rights to the book so he could make it his final film. With Wilder at the helm, the film would certainly have been quite different. After the director came to America, most of his family, including his mother, grandmother, and stepfather, were killed at Auschwitz, and Wilder wanted to make the Schindler film as a tribute to them.

However, Wilder hit a pretty big roadblock even as early as 1983: Steven Spielberg already owned the rights. Wilder tried to talk Spielberg into letting him direct the film, but to no avail. When Schindler's List eventually came out ten years later, Wilder admitted that while he would have made the picture very differently, Spielberg did a terrific job and crafted "a very important picture."

'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears every Friday. Read the previous installments 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
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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Stephen Missal
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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