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We Love Lucy! Secrets From Your Favorite Episodes for Lucille Ball's 100th Birthday

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Leonard McCombe/TIME & LIFE Pictures

Tomorrow would have been Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday. Though she starred on Broadway, in films and in several other sitcoms, she’ll always be remembered by most of us as Lucy Ricardo, the red-headed housewife who was dying to get into show business. In honor of Lucy’s centenary, we share a few behind-the-scenes tidbits from the I Love Lucy set.

Slap of Reality

“Job Switching” (often referred to as “The Candy Factory Episode”) has long been a fan favorite, particularly the scene where Lucy and Ethel are stuffing their faces and clothing with chocolates while trying to keep up with a speedy conveyor belt.

The previous scene featured Lucy hand-dipping chocolates with a real-life dipper that Desi Arnaz had spotted working at the Farmer’s Market on Fairfax Avenue. Amanda Milligan had never seen I Love Lucy (she watched wrestling on Monday nights) but Desi hired her anyway: he thought her deadpan expression would make her a perfect “straight woman” for Lucille to react to.

During rehearsals, Lucille was worried that the scene just wasn’t going to be funny on film because Milligan seemed hesitant to hit her in the face as the script specified. When the cameras were rolling, however, Milligan hauled off and smacked Lucille so hard that Ball feared her nose had been broken. Despite her pain and ringing ears, Ball didn’t call for a “cut”—she didn't want to have to do another take!

During a break in filming, Lucille asked Milligan “So, how do you like working in show business?” An unsmiling Amanda, who’d spent eight hours per day for the past 30 years dipping chocolates, replied “I’ve never been so bored in my life.”

“Call for Ches--- er, Philip Morris!!”

Leonard McCombe/TIME & LIFE Pictures

I Love Lucy almost never made it to the air because CBS had trouble securing a sponsor for the show. Finally, tobacco giant Philip Morris signed on at the 11th hour. As a result, lots of smoking was featured in each episode, and the name “Philip Morris” was worked into the dialog whenever plausible. There was, however, one small problem—when it came to rich tobacco flavor, Lucille Ball was a Chesterfield girl.

She eventually overcame this little hurdle by having a stagehand stuff any on-camera Philip Morris packs full of Chesterfield cigarettes.

Do You Pop Out at Parties? Are You Unpoopular?

Another fan favorite was, interestingly, not one of Lucille Ball’s favorite episodes. It wasn’t until “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” was voted tops in many viewer polls over the years that she acknowledged that it was a funny episode.

During filming, she was too nervous and worried about messing up her lines (imagine having to say “Vitameatavegamin” that many times during a spiel) to appreciate the humor. Lucille Ball was many things, including a great physical comedienne, but one thing she was not was an improviser or extemporaneous speaker. Every slurred word of her drunken Vitameatavegamin pitch was written in the script. Lucille even came up with a back-up plan lest she forget her lines: she had script clerk Maury Thompson made-up and placed off-side in front of her podium holding up her lines (there were no cue cards on the I Love Lucy set) much like a real commercial setting.

By the way, that stuff Lucille was pouring onto the spoon was apple pectin. A “life imitates art” by the way: that “pick-me-up” tonic for the aging called Geritol contains 12% alcohol.

Grapes of Wrath

“Lucy’s Italian Movie” faced a variety of obstacles….first was getting a vineyard to donate the necessary grapes for stomping. The company that ultimately agreed did so with the proviso that it must be mentioned in the script that foot-pressing was an outmoded method of making wine in Italy.

Next was the local extra cast to wrestle Lucille in the grape vat; Teresa Tirelli didn’t speak any English and an interpreter had to explain the scene to her. Apparently something was lost in the translation because Tirelli didn’t grasp that this was supposed to be a filmed-from-the-waist-up fake fight and she literally held Lucille’s head under the grape mush until the star nearly drowned.

And lastly, even though the show was broadcast in black and white, Lucille, Desi and the production staff were sticklers for detail, so a formula for a purplish/blue dye had to be worked out that would properly tint Lucille’s flesh and hair without irritating her skin or reacting with the chemicals used to keep her permed locks that famous henna color for that final scene.

Honk if You’re a Perfectionist

Lucille was a long-time admirer of Harpo Marx, but when it came to actually working with him, she was unprepared for his “never the same way twice” approach to his comedy routines. In the Hollywood episode where she was required to mirror his moves, she insisted on incessant rehearsals to get the bit just right. But Harpo’s attitude was “I’ve done this bit for 35 years, why do I need so much rehearsal?”

In the end, this was one of the few instances where the scene was re-shot several times after the studio audience had left and was later pieced together by film editor Dann Cahn.

No Credit for the Man of Steel

George Reeves, TV’s Superman, guest-starred on an episode of I Love Lucy but was not acknowledged in the closing credits. On a show where everyone from the walk-on waiters with one line were credited, why wouldn’t a bona fide TV star like Reeves be given his due? The answer was that Lucille had two youngsters at home who believed in the superheroes that they saw on television like Superman, and she didn’t want to disillusion any of the younger fans who watched her show.

Remember, any guest stars or extras who appeared on I Love Lucy were credited at the end of the episode in a voice-over, not in a printed scroll. While Reeves was credited in writing on his own series, Lucille didn’t want kids who couldn’t yet read to hear that “the part of Superman was played by….”

Share your Lucy love! What is your favorite episode? What blooper have you noticed that slipped past the editors? I Love Lucy fans want to know.

LIFE.com is featuring a gallery of previously unpublished Lucille Ball photos. Check it out 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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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